Silence, ça tourne! The first sound shootings in French studios

By Morgan Lefeuvre

Casting in the Tobis Studios in 1929 – The director communicates with the sound engineer using a telephone. Coll. Cinémathèque française.

‘Cinema speaks, but not for long! It’s too complicated, too scientific! […] Do you realise that if talking pictures were to last, we would all have to change jobs?’ (Pagnol: p. 18). This statement, addressed by a French producer to Marcel Pagnol in 1929 to dissuade him from trying the cinema adventure, illustrates how much the advent of talking pictures is perceived at the time as a real revolution. Beyond the soundproofing of the sets and the installation of new technical equipment, it is the whole functioning of the studios that is affected by the introduction of this new technology. In an extremely rapid and radical way, sound film imposes its law on all studio workers who, in a few months, must deeply modify their working habits, learn a new technique and a new vocabulary, become familiar with new practices, and integrate new professionals into their teams, in a word: ‘change their job’! The aim of this blog post is not to offer an in-depth analysis of this major technological and aesthetic breakthrough in the history of cinema, but rather to provide an insight into the climate of confusion, technical experimentation, but also enthusiasm and joyful fantasy that reigned in the French studios during this short and experimental period of transition from silent to sound era. This post is an invitation to immerse oneself, for the duration of a brief journey, in the bizarre and often funny atmosphere of the first French sound film shoots, which the actors and technicians of the time still remember with amusement and emotion.

From the summer of 1929 to the end of 1930, the French studios are in a state of perpetual renovation. From Nice to Joinville, from Billancourt to Épinay, new workshops and sets are built, the obsolete glass roofs removed, the sets soundproofed and new sound equipment installed. Everywhere the appearance of the sets changes, natural light disappears for good, the brick walls are lined with Celotex and new spaces are created to accommodate the sound engineers and their equipment with weird names (potentiometers, galvanometers, amplifiers, mixing tables, etc.). In most of the large studios (at Paramount in Saint-Maurice, in Billancourt or at Tobis in Épinay-sur-Seine) small rooms are built over the sets to accommodate the sound engineers and their equipment. Equipped with large, double-glazed windows, these mixing rooms allow the engineer to make the necessary adjustments to the sound recording while following the progress of the shooting on the set. In other installations (notably in the Joinville studios), the equipment is installed in heavy mobile cabins that the grips move according to the needs of the shots and changes of set. As a new central figure in the studios, the sound engineer is paradoxically invisible, isolated from the rest of the team, as described by a sound engineer in Pour Vous: ‘I am the forgotten one, the obscure worker whose domain is a small cabin lost in the depths of the studio […]’ (March 1937: p. 8). In addition, in order not to disturb the sound recording, the cameraman and his equipment are equally enclosed in a second, smaller wheeled cabin, which the stagehands are trying to move painfully to carry out dollies or panoramic shots. These new devices, which profoundly modify relations within the team and the atmosphere on the sets, have raised the curiosity of journalists who are multiplying their reports on these new sound stages.

Far from the glamorous images of talking stars celebrated at Hollywood opening nights, the descriptions of early sound filming in the French press often seek to provoke surprise, even disappointment for the reader who discovers the chaos of a film set and the rocky nature of these early sound shootings:

Hey! What, is this what a studio is? […] a three-sided set, cabins that look like tanks, a fishing rod with a microphone as bait, men with sweaty faces, blue-collared, fiddling with controllers and jabbering behind the sets, […] artists who dare not move for fear of damaging their make-up and who wait, stunned by the light, for the magic trick that will make them come alive as if they were precious dolls…yes, that’s what a studio is!

Cinémonde, April 1931: p. 213.

Sound tests in the Gaumont studios – on the right, the camera cabin covered with heavy curtains.  Coll. Cinémathèque française.

The first element highlighted by all observers is the silence imposed on everyone on the set and the new modes of communication within the film crew. Whereas in the silent era, the set was an eminently noisy and animated space (hammering, grips whistling on the scaffolding, extras chattering and instructions shouted by the director into his megaphone), the sound film suddenly imposes total silence on everyone. The red lights, along with a loud beep, appears at the set doors and crews often find it difficult to comply with this new discipline. On the set of his first sound film, Sous les toits de Paris, René Clair is even called to order by the studio’s production manager, who asks him to discipline his crews so that they did not think they were ‘allowed to go in and out of the studio, make noise etc. while the red light is on’ (BNF, fonds René Clair, 4°COL 84 / RC 09). Locked in his booth and isolated from the rest of the crew, the sound engineer communicates his instructions via a telephone connected to a loudspeaker. His definitive advice ‘OK for sound’ or ‘no good for sound’, coming out of nowhere, freezes the whole team, who look askance at this new star of the sets. ‘The booth where he stands is like a fortress, no one questions his orders’, says journalist Jacqueline Lenoir in Cinémonde (May 1934, p. 380). Ordering silence, having the power to interrupt filming or to impose his demands on the actors as well as the director or the cinematographer, the sound engineer was generally little appreciated in the French studios at the beginning of the sound era. As this extract from a report in the Pathé studios in Joinville shows:

The studio bar is filling up with people…the lady in charge points out to me a few people who have been spotlighted by the talkies […] It’s the soundman. All directors fear him. M. Marcel L’Herbier in particular curses him. He exercises a real dictatorship over the studio […]

Cinémonde, Feb. 1930: p. 88.

‘I never abuse this almost dictatorial power. I am content to demand perfect sound, voice and musical emissions’, adds Régy, the sound engineer, in an interview (Pour Vous, March 1937: p. 8). Most of the first sound engineers in the Paris studios come from the United States (more rarely from Germany) and do not speak French, bringing with them a whole Anglo-Saxon technical vocabulary which make them all the more exotic in the eyes of the teams. ‘With sound, an infinitely complex, infinitely fragile equipment entered the studio. Mysterious geniuses called microphones, amplifiers, galvanometers, photoelectric cells, fixed density and variable density suddenly appeared’, says the journalist Jean Vidal (L’Intransigeant, March 1933: p. 9). However, the studio workers are quick to reappropriate these new technical terms, transforming the ‘stageman’ into a ‘giraffe man’ and the ‘mixing room’ into a ‘sound shack’, which makes the first sound stages look like a Tower of Babel where a French-English jargon mixed with slang is spoken, much to the delight of reporting journalists. As Edwige Feuillère writes in her memoirs about her first sound experiences at the Saint-Maurice studios:

It was the international hustle and bustle of airports on the days of the big departure. All the languages were jabbered and in the work, on the sets, reinterpreted by our clever grips who understood quickly and translated immediately into Parisian or Marseilles according to their origins.

Feuillères: p. 74.

Sound engineer in his mixing-room in the Tobis studios (1930). Coll. Cinémathèque française.

Beyond these new soundscapes, what strikes the visitor who enters the Parisian studios in 1930 is the tropical heat that reigns there, whatever the season. Hermetically locked to avoid outside noise, the French sets hastily redesigned for sound films were rarely equipped with an adequate ventilation system and the air was unbreathable. Moreover, the widespread use of incandescent lamps (arc lamps cause a lot of parasitic noise) increases the heat even more and it is not unusual for temperatures to approach 40°C on the catwalks where the stagehands and electricians work. Locked up in their hermetically sealed, cork-lined cabins, the sound engineers have to endure even higher temperatures. A Comoedia journalist who came to interview engineer Antoine Archimbaud in his booth said that the thermometer read 48°C (Nov. 1930: p. 8). As for the sound engineer Roger Handjian, he recalls the shooting of Marcel L’Herbier’s Le Parfum de la dame en noir, during which the temperature rose so high on the set that the automatic fire extinguishers – which are triggered above 68°C  – went off, copiously drenching the actors, technicians, director and the hundred or so extras present on the set! (L’Écho d’Alger, June 1933: p. 4). In the suffocating heat of the sets, the most distinguished directors sometimes lose all sense of dignity and elegance, like René Hervil, whom a journalist from Pour Vous describes as follows on the set of his film Azaïs:

Under a light more dazzling and torrid than it can be in the worst Sahara, three hundred people in gala dresses are drinking and chatting in the lobby of a palace. […] Suddenly, in the middle of this sumptuous crowd, an individual dressed in a while painter’s coat, whose open flaps float over pants pleated at the calves by the sock fixers. […] The man in the pants is René Hervil. […] He has too much to do to wear trousers. Silence! Hervil thunders. Close the doors! […] It’s spinning!

Pour Vous, Jan. 1931: p. 2.

Once the scene is set, the director wipes his forehead, ‘with a towel around his neck and shoulders, like a boxing trainer’. In order to prevent the crews from suffocating completely, the doors of the set are opened wide between takes and the air is stirred with powerful fans placed in front of the doors. In winter, this causes sudden drops in temperature and the actors complain about the cold!

Shooting of La Fleur de l’Oranger, Pathé studios in Joinville, May 1932 – Coll. Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé.

But it is above all the vagaries of the microphone and the difficult control of sounds that cause visitors to be amused. Once the sets have been soundproofed and hermetically sealed, it is still necessary to hunt for parasitic noise and to try – with an often rudimentary level of equipment – to capture the voices of the actors and the various sounds necessary for the scene as well as possible. The first parasitic noise, already mentioned above, is that of the cameras themselves, which are initially enclosed in a soundproof box with the operator. This is how Marcel L’Herbier described them while shooting his first talking film, L’Enfant de l’amour:

It was quite ludicrous this ‘first one hundred percent speaking’. In the Joinville studio, which had been hastily set up for sound, I only had the noisy cameras of the late silent era. They had to be muffled so that the microphones could not hear them. But how? Our ingenious engineers thought they had found perfection by constructing a sort of bathing cabin like the ones that were rolled out to the waves for the first baths in Dieppe or Trouville. Locked inside with their ‘zinc’ [camera], my cameramen Arménise and Lucas, who were not allowed to wear a swimming costume, sweated profusely in these mobile carts. […]

L’Herbier: p. 192.

In other cases, while waiting for the blimp to appear, the operators simply cover their cameras with a heavy woolen blanket, which, as one can imagine, does not help to bear the tropical temperature of the sets! Then they must flush out all the parasitic noises that the microphones, which are still very imperfectly sensitive, amplify disproportionately. It’s the journalist who has come to see the shooting and is playing with his keys in his pocket, the newspaper leafed through by an actress whose paper makes a thunderous noise, or the young actor’s polished shoes that crunch and cover his voice. Sometimes the solution is simple – get the journalist out of the room, dampen the newspaper sheets or ask the young actor to act barefoot – but often tricks have to be found to remedy the situation. On the set of Il est charmant, actor Dranem’s new shoes caused a deafening squeal in the microphones with every step he took, so the soles had to be perforated in several places and oil injected in order to soften the leather and allow the shooting to continue. In summer, flies or bees infiltrating the studios are the bête noire of sound engineers, their incessant buzzing, amplified by over-sensitive microphones, interfering with the sound recording and causing a noise similar to that of an aircraft engine. In some studios built in a wooded environment, close to rivers or stables (such as those in Joinville, Billancourt, Saint-Maurice or Épinay-sur-Seine), the insects are so numerous that young assistants are responsible for chasing away the intruders by spraying Fly-Tox all day, which contributes to making the air on the sets particularly unbreathable! (Rochefort: p. 207)

During the very first sound shootings, all the sounds (voices, sound effects, music) were recorded live, which brought a host of new professionals to the sets and made the mixing particularly delicate, as sound engineer Régy explains: ‘During a fight in a bar […] Armand Bernard, Marguerite Moreno and Suzet Maïs had to restart their performance seven times in the middle of the fight, in the midst of growing irritation, because the perfect marriage of the various noises, broken furniture, smashed bottles, kicks and punches, exclamations and screams could not be achieved during the first rehearsal’ (Pour Vous, March 1937: p. 8). Although the presence of full orchestras and effects men of all kinds on the sets only lasted a few months (quickly giving way to prerecorded sounds and post-synchronisation), the unusual presence of effects men nevertheless left its mark on people’s minds and many articles were devoted to them in the press of the time. The image below ironically illustrates the hyperspecialisation of some of them, suggesting that with sound films it was quite easy to get paid to do nothing on the set!

La Cinématographie française, 27 September 1930, p. 42.

– What is this guy doing here?

– He is the one who in the orgy scenes imitates the sound of champagne bottles being uncorked!

Chaotic and often with limited results, the first sound shootings remain an inexhaustible source of surprises and amused memories for the technicians who lived through this crazy adventure. As Marcel L’Herbier, who despaired of being able to control the shooting of his film, wrote: ‘Finally, the moments of laughter at the surprises of the microphone and the dry bath cabin gave us back our morale’ (L’Herbier: p. 193).


Anon. ‘Les confidences du micro’, Comoedia, 15 November 1930, p. 8.

André Arnyvelde, ‘Dans le hall d’un palace en tournant Azaïs’, Pour Vous, n°113, 15 January 1931, p. 2.

BNF archives (Bibliothèque Nationale de France), René Clair collection, letter from Franck Clifford to René Clair, 22 January 1930, 4°COL 84 / RC 09.

Max Falk, ‘Studio ou l’on parle, studio ou l’on travaille’, Cinémonde, n°68, 6 February 1930, p. 88.

Edwige Feuillère, Les feux de la mémoire, Paris, Albin Michel, coll. Le Livre de poche, 1977.

F. Herlin, ‘Ciné-Échos’, L’Écho d’Alger, 1er June 1933, p. 4.

Jacqueline Lenoir, ‘Parlons un peu des gens de cinéma’, Cinémonde, n°290, 10 May 1934, p. 380.

Marcel L’Herbier, La Tête qui tourne, Paris, ed. Belfond, 1979.

Marcel Pagnol, Cinématurgie de Paris, Paris, ed. de Fallois, coll. Fortunio, 1991.

Régy, ‘À l’écoute… souvenirs d’un ingénieur du son’, Pour Vous, n°436, 25 March 1937, p. 8.

Max Renneville, ‘Cinémonde vous raconte… René Hervil au travail’, Cinémonde, n°128, 2 April 1931, p. 213.

Charles de Rochefort, Le Film de mes souvenirs, Paris, Société parisienne d’édition, 1943, p. 207.

Jean Vidal, ‘La parole est à l’homme du son’, L’Intransigeant, 4 March 1933, p. 9.

Supporting feature: tubular scaffolding

By Richard Farmer

Kinematograph Weekly, 24 October 1929.

Film studios are places of innovation. New technologies and creative processes are developed, adopted, adapted and eventually superseded. Some of these innovations, such as the arrival of synchronised sound or widescreen, are designed to be obvious to the viewer, to provide spectacle and inspire wonder and pleasure. But a host of other innovations go unseen, especially those that change how a film is made, as opposed to the form it takes when it is placed before the consumer. These background innovations can change day-to-day labour practices and are often introduced to make the working life of a studio more efficient and cost effective, even as they might simultaneously contribute to aesthetic change.

‘Bettaskaf’: Steel Scaffolding Co., Ltd, (Kinematograph Weekly, 24 October 1929). ‘Double Grip’: London & Midland Steel Scaffolding Co., Ltd (Kinematograph Weekly, 24 June 1948).

One such innovation, introduced to British studios in the late 1920s and early 1930s, was tubular metal scaffolding.  As an October 1929 advertisement for the Steel Scaffolding Co.’s ‘Bettaskaf’ system claimed, metal scaffolding could be used for ‘all constructional work’ in the studio:  

In the building of sets, platforms for lights and cameras, erection of scenery, temporary buildings, etc., there is nothing that ‘Bettaskaf’ will not do …  Dismantled even quicker than it is erected it can be stored away neatly until it is required again, no waste, no loss, adaptable to every need (Bettaskaf, 1929: 54). 

But wait, cried a salesman for the rival London & Midland Steel Scaffolding Co., Ltd., there’s more: 

On location work its uses are many and varied, mobile sun rostrums and spot rails, temporary dressing rooms and canteen, generator shelters, baffles for suppressing generator noises, temporary studios for shooting interiors during inclement weather (Kinematograph Weekly, 26 November 1936: 49).

Metal scaffolding was designed to replace timber and was said by manufacturers to offer such notable advantages over wood that it would ‘practically eliminate’ it as a building material in the studio (Bettaskaf, 1929: 54). The first of these advantages was cost, both in terms of labour – one report claimed that sets could be put up in one eighth of the time of a timber set – and outlay on materials – a greater upfront cost, admittedly, but its durability and reusability effecting as much as a 75% saving over time (Kinematograph Weekly, 27 June 1935: 63; Carter, 1935: 259). Metal scaffolding was fireproof, a significant point of appeal for an industry with a tendency to dangerous and expensive conflagrations, and was also strong, its greater rigidity allowing camera platforms and lighting rails to be placed ‘in positions impossible with timber, i.e. over the sides of ships, on railway engines and automobiles’ (Kinematograph Weekly, 26 November 1936: 49). Furthermore, and suggesting how different kinds of innovation intersect, proponents claimed that it was quieter to erect and use, and so more suited to use in the early sound studio: ‘if Britain is to win the fight for talking film supremacy, the microphone will eventually demand the use of the spanner as against the noise occasioned by the busy carpenter and joiner’ (Bioscope, 13 November 1929: xv). Those wielding these spanners would, within a few years, find themselves playfully dubbed ‘tuberculars’ by their colleagues (Whitley, 1935: 27).

International Photographer, August 1933.

Tubular metal scaffolding had become increasingly common in Britain during the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, possibly because of the relative scarcity of wood in the UK as compared to other countries such as the USA, where timber scaffolding continued to be used until at least the late 1920s (New York Times, 24 August 1930: W14). The eventual standardisation of pole diameters was followed by the development of a range of patented connectors and accessories that allowed horizontal, vertical and diagonal tubes to be joined in pretty much infinite combinations.  It was this flexibility that appealed to filmmakers; the modular nature of tubular metal scaffolding could be used to quickly and easily construct a lighting rig or camera crane to match the specific needs of an individual production, sequence or shot. Moreover, it could be easily disassembled when not in use, freeing up space on often cramped studio floors: as Kinematograph Weekly observed, ‘a camera crane, in the ordinary way, takes some parking when out of action’ (Kinematograph Weekly, 11 January 1934: 113).

Although stories vary as to who had the initial idea for using tubular scaffolding in British film production – some suggest that it was a studio manager, some a chief engineer, others a studio accountant – many reports focus on the fact that, as Meccano Magazine reported to its readers with no small degree of pride, inspiration was taken from a child’s Meccano set (Kinematograph Year Book, 1936: 335, 338; Coughter 1933: 415; New York Times, 7 Jan 1934: X4). What seems clearer is that in 1931 Gaumont-British became an early, and perhaps the first, adopter of this new apparatus in the context of film production in the UK, and by 1935 bragged that its Shepherd’s Bush studio was home to 100,000 ft. of tubular scaffold poles, ‘10,000 couplers, 5,000 base plates, 200 wheels (various)’ (Kinematograph Year Book, 1936: 310).  

Gaumont-British was eager to put this giant building kit to work, and almost as keen to be seen doing so. Numerous reports in both the trade and popular press from the mid-1930s refer to the uses to which studio employees were putting the company’s ‘grown-up Meccano’ (Kinematograph Weekly, 11 January 1934: 113). Oliver Baldwin, son of Stanley, excitedly informed readers of Picturegoer that when he visited the set for First a Girl (1935), he found ‘cameras, microphones, rostrums of all shapes and sizes, erected [from modular metal scaffolding] with a firmness that was unknown in the old days’ (Baldwin 1935: 8). A crane weighing an estimated 15 tons was constructed for The Iron Duke (1934), allowing cinematographer Curt Courant and his camera to gracefully track Wellington from a high-angle as he moved through a crowded ballroom (Mannock 1934: 25), whilst a dramatic mobile shot in Britannia of Billingsgate (1933) was made possible by a tubular-scaffolding slipping rostrum measuring 30 ft. long by 75 ft. high (Kinematograph Weekly, 27 June 1935: 63).  For Channel Crossing (1933), tubular scaffolding was used to build both the supporting framework of the s.s. Canterbury set and a crane large enough to accommodate camera, director and cinematographer.   

The Sphere, 23 March 1946.

The art director on Channel Crossing was Alfred Junge, one a number of German film technicians working in British studios in the 1930s who were able and willing to explore the aesthetic possibilities afforded by the new scaffolding. STUDIOTEC’s Tim Bergfelder has noted that Junge ‘revolutionised scaffolding and crane technology [in Britain], which led to an increased mobility for both sets and cameras’ (Bergfelder 2016: 25). Junge was eager – indeed, was employed – to bring a German polish to British films by replicating something of the ‘unchained camera’ that had influenced him during his formative years in Germany during the 1920s, a technique which had shaped production design and cinematography in pretty much equal measure but which, Katharina Loew suggests, was in Germany often facilitated by wooden trusses and steel cables (Loew 2021: 246-7). The flexibility and economy of tubular scaffolding made it easier for Junge to realise his creative ambitions, whilst the cost-effective nature of the system meant that studio bean-counters were perhaps more willing to let him try. As Edward Carrick noted of tubular scaffolding, its mobility was ‘a great asset’ when designing more elaborate sets that could accommodate more mobile cameras:

whole sections of walls, including windows, mantlepieces and stairways, are attached to tubular scaffolding towers which are mounted on rubber-tyred wheels. There is an inch of so clearance between the set and floor and the whole lot can be moved in and out at will (Carrick 1949: 82).

For all that German art designers and cinematographers had the skills and experience to more fully exploit the opportunities afforded by tubular scaffolding, it was heralded in many quarters as a British innovation, and one that improved the look and so the prestige of British films. The Era’s Kenneth Green, for example, observed that ‘it is satisfactory to record the ingenuities of a British device of which Hollywood knows nothing’ (Green 1933: 18). On the other side of the Atlantic, the August 1933 edition of International Photographer noted that it was ‘a surprise’ that American studios had not yet adopted tubular scaffolding (Tannura 1933: 17), whilst the New York Times, seemingly unwilling to take the British studios at their word, cautiously observed that the system was ‘regarded by American technicians as a useful development’ (New York Times, 7 Jan 1934: X4).  Further research might be needed before we can state with certainty whether British studios really did lead the way in their use of tubular scaffolding, but what is evident is that they were clearly happy to take the credit.

Kinematograph Weekly, 24 June 1948.

By the end of the 1930s, the use of tubular scaffolding was widespread in British studios, and by the late 1940s fan magazines felt comfortable dropping references to it into their articles without having to explain what it was or the influence it had had on filmmaking. What in the mid-1930s had been declared nothing less than ‘a revolution’ (Baldwin 1935: 8) had been normalised, although the changes it brought about in the industry lived on.  Indeed, it is a testament to the durability and usefulness of these metal poles and connectors that they sometimes outlived the studios in which they had been used, auctioned off when production ceased so that they could find renewed purpose elsewhere.   


Oliver Baldwin, ‘Behind the scenes at Shepherd’s Bush’, Picturegoer, 31 August 1935: 8-9.

Tim Bergfelder, ‘The production designer and the Gesamtkunstwerk: German film technicians in the British film industry of the 1930s’, in Andrew Higson (ed.), Dissolving views: key writings on British cinema (London: Bloomsbury, 2016): 20-37.

Bettaskaf advertisement, Kinematograph Weekly, 24 October 1929: 54.

Edward Carrick, Designing for films (London: Studio Publications, 1949).

A. L. Carter, ‘Equipment and technique in 1935’, in Kinematograph Year Book 1936 (London: Kinematograph Publications Ltd, 1935): 219-70.

Ellis Coughter, ‘The largest film studio in Europe: Gaumont-British enterprise’, Meccano Magazine, June 1933: 414-5, 470.

Kenneth Green, ‘Alfred Hitchcock’s new talkie’, The Era, 27 September 1933: 18.

Kinematograph Year Book 1936 (London: Kinematograph Publications Ltd, 1935).

Katharina Loew, Special Effects and German Silent Film: Techno-Romantic Cinema (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2021).

P. L. Mannock, ‘George Arliss begins as Wellington’, Kinematograph Weekly, 6 September 1934: 25.

Philip Tannura, ‘European supremacy?’, International Photographer, August 1933: 17.

R. J. Whitley, ‘Studio “slanguage”’, Daily Mirror, 13 September 1935: 27.

The Austro-German Connection: Italy’s Transnational Films and the UK

By Carla Mereu Keating

As we continue to compile our filmographies to map regional, national, international and transnational nodes and networks of film production, several lesser-known cases of collaboration among the four countries of the project have emerged. This blog post shares ongoing research on the history of Italian film studios in the years following the domestic conversion to sound. In particular, it looks at attempts to establish a new commercial route for Italian films in the UK in the 1930s and at the role that Berlin, Vienna and London-based filmmakers played in this transnational film exchange.  

With the diffusion of synchronised sound, audiences’ language diversity posed a threat to the international circulation of films. In the early years of the transition, creative solutions were designed at the stages of production, post-production and distribution to overcome the language barrier. Content localization practices such as dubbing and subtitling, for example, were introduced with different degrees of success in Britain, France, Germany and Italy. In the UK, for example, as discussed by Carol O’Sullivan (2019: 271), the introduction of subtitles caught up later in comparison with other non-English speaking European markets, partly because of the plentiful supply of English-language films coming from Hollywood. As I have considered elsewhere, in the 1930s a number of European films also reached the UK in a dubbed version, eliciting mixed critical reviews. 

Song of the Sun was among the first (Italian) films shown on British screens dubbed. This romantic musical comedy was dubbed into English from the Italo-German dual language version La canzone del sole/Das Lied der Sonne (Neufeld, 1933), produced by the Berlin-based Italian company Itala Film. Alongside opera singer Giacomo Lauri Volpi appearing as himself, the leading actors in both versions, German Liliane Dietz and Italian Vittorio De Sica, were directed by Austrian director Max Neufeld in Berlin, at the Johannisthal studios, and in Italy, on location. In the German Das Lied der Sonne, the only version that I was able to access, De Sica constantly switches from a broken, heavily-accented German to his native Italian, adding even more flavour to the long, postcard sequences filmed in Verona, Venice, Rome, Naples and Capri.  

Dietz and De Sica in La canzone del soleCinema Illustrazione, 18 October 1933.

The opera theme and the picturesque Italian-ness on screen may have been a selling point for the English and German-speaking markets, but in Italy La canzone del sole was received in hardly complimentary terms by some film critics of the time: the film was ‘a lyrical-touristic pot-pourri’ commented Margadonna (Illustrazione Italiana 12 November 1933, cited in Chiti and Lancia 2005: 60); critic Enrico Roma also labelled it ‘a funfair of Italian voices and songs to suit the Germans, who lack their own [repertoire]’, and was reproachful of Dietz’s ‘mangled Italian pronunciation’ (Cinema Illustrazione, 15 November 1933: 12). 

Other types of localization of film content were attempted at the level of production and required more extensive financial investments than dubbing or subtitling. Paramount’s transatlantic move to the Joinville studios outside of Paris (Ďurovičová 1992) and Ufa’s longer-lasting multilingual project at Babelsberg in Berlin (Wahl 2016) are the most illustrative examples of the wide-scale studio-based efforts required in the early years of the transition to produce multiple-language versions (MLVs). At the beginning of the 1930s, neither the UK nor Italy committed to a large production of MLVs. The Italian film industry, in particular, fell behind in the race to equip for sound, Italy being the last country in the STUDIOTEC group to build soundstages and to have the spatial capacity to accommodate the requirements of multilingual production. 

If we look at the filmographic data provisionally collected for the 1930s, among the MLVs released in Italy between 1930 and 1934 only 12 were produced in Italian studios, mostly at Cines, the first facility to be equipped for sound. Strictly speaking, Italy’s MLVs were examples of dual language rather than multiple versioning, in the sense that production rarely involved more than two languages at a time (usually in Italian and French, or in Italian and German). During this four-year period, only one example, La canzone dell’amore (Righelli 1930), Italy’s first sound feature to be released, was also filmed in both French (La dernière berceuse) and German (Liebeslied) at Cines with a partially different cast and direction. In later years, the number of Italian studio facilities able to host MLVs increased, but the dual-language model remained the preferred one, with French or German being the second working language. When collecting and comparing the data at our disposal, however, we observed some curious examples of production in English, and from the late 1930s onwards, in Spanish.

The Divine Spark (Casta Diva, Gallone 1935), a romantic drama inspired by the life of Italian composer Vincenzo Bellini, is probably the most renowned example of an English-language film produced in Italy in the mid-1930s. Exploiting the opera theme in time for Bellini’s centenary commemorations, the English and the Italian-language versions, both directed by director Carmine Gallone, were shot at Cines between the end of 1934 and spring 1935 (Bono 2004: 87). Produced by the film company Alleanza Cinematografica Italiana (ACI), both versions cast Hungarian Operetta star Marta Eggerth (as Maddalena Fumaroli) who sang and acted with her own voice accompanied in the Italian version by the unknown Sandro Palmieri and in the English version by the American Philipps Holmes (as Bellini). 

Eggerth and Palmieri in Casta Diva, Cinema Illustrazione, 6 March 1935.

Not only does Casta Diva hold the distinction of being one of the few Italian films produced during these years to have an English-language counterpart, but it is also of particular interest because of the ‘Austro-German connection’. As argued by Bono (2004: 53), the idea for Casta Diva ‘filiated’ from the Austro-German opera film Leise flehen meine Lieder (Forst 1933) based on the life of Franz Schubert and produced by Cine-Allianz (later in Italy as ACI) at the Sievering film studios in Vienna. Leise flehen meine Lieder was also adapted into English in Vienna as Unfinished Symphony (Asquith 1934). Polyglot Eggerth starred again in both versions. Austrian producer Arnold Pressburger and screenwriter Walter Reisch, Czech cinematographer Franz Planer, art director Werner Schlichting and music director Willy Schmidt-Gentner (both German but working in Vienna) were involved in this dual version project. The presence of émigré filmmakers in Vienna during these years is not surprising, considering that between 1933 and 1938, when Austria was annexed, the capital had become a temporary refuge for many Jewish filmmakers forced out of Germany (Loacker 2019). The Cine-Allianz team, including production partner Gregor Rabinovitch, a Russian émigré, later worked on the production of The Divine Spark in Italy in collaboration with British Gaumont. Awarded the Mussolini Cup for best Italian film at the Venice Film Festival in 1935, the Italian-language Casta Diva was instead handled by an Italian technical crew (including Massimo Terzano, Fernando Tropea, and Enrico Verdozzi).

Another lesser-known film made in Italy in English in the second half of the 1930s points at further developments in the transnational dynamics observed above. This production was Thirteen Men and a Gun (Zampi 1938), the English-language version of Tredici uomini e un cannone (Forzano 1936), a Great-War Russian espionage thriller. Departing from the romantic Operettenfilm formula (more popular in Germany than in Italy) and featuring an all-male cast, this project aimed to attract a different segment of the market. The English version went into production in December 1937, a year after the Italian version was released, but both films were shot in Tuscany at the Pisorno studios. According to the Motion Picture Herald, ‘more than 40 British actors, cameramen and technicians’ travelled to Italy to collaborate on this production (5 February 1938: 25). A German-language version Dreizehn Mann und eine Kanone (Meyer 1938), was also filmed in 1938, but in Munich, at the Geiselgasteig studios, according to German sources.

Painting the wooden cannon prop (right), Cinema Illustrazione, 26 August 1936: 8.

These late 1930s MLVs interest us because they signal the development of a new film network between Italy and the UK thanks to the initiative of Italian-born editor, director and producer Mario Zampi working in London with Warner and Paramount and co-founder of the film company Two Cities Film. As some trade press reports indicate, Thirteen Men and a Gun was the first of a ‘consummated deal’ between Zampi and film director, playwright and Pisorno studios’ owner Giovacchino Forzano which envisioned a total of seven English-language features to be produced in Italy (The Film Daily, 31 December 1937: 12). It is still unclear how the partnership between Zampi and Forzano formed in the very first place, but the fact that there was a German-language version of Tredici uomini in production at the same time, and that Zampi was acquainted with the British director Anthony Asquith, who had worked with Cine-Allianz in Vienna a few years before, and with whom Zampi would go on to produce several films, point at an expanding trans-European network which originated from the earlier opera films.  

The making of the other six English-language films in Italy, however, never went ahead because of the outbreak of World War Two. After Italy’s declaration of war on Britain in June 1940, Zampi, being a foreign national from a country with which Britain was at war, was considered an ‘enemy alien’. Alongside some 4,000 resident Italians, he was arrested and interned in a UK holding camp while one of his Two Cities films, the anti-Nazi thriller Freedom Radio (Asquith 1941), was in production at Sound City, Shepperton Studios. Having survived the sinking of the Arandora Star, a ship headed to deportation camps in Canada, after the war Zampi continued to produce ‘quintessentially English’ films in London with the Rank Organisation. His figure will interest us further because of his later involvement in the promotion and circulation of Italian cinema in the UK in the 1950s and early 1960s. 

The lesser known film collaborations overviewed here illustrate the importance of a comparative, transnational approach when researching the history of European studios. They suggest a prolific migration of ideas and labour within the European film industry landscape of the 1930s, displaying creative attempts at producing and circulating films across national territories and application of foreign language and intercultural skills to the industry. The case studies also allow us to reflect on the tensions that exist between the place-based nature of film production and issues of lingua/culture-centrism, hinting at the dynamic transcultural experience of making films across studios and nations at a time of insurgent political and ethnic nationalism.  


Anon. ‘Seven English Features to Be Produced in Italy’. The Film Daily, 31 December 1937, 12.

Bono, Francesco. 2004. Casta Diva & Co. Percorsi Nel Cinema Italiano Fra Le Due Guerre. Viterbo: Sette Città.

Ďurovičová, Nataša. 1992. ‘Translating America: The Hollywood Multilinguals 1929-1933’. In Sound Theory, Sound Practice, 138–53. Routledge.

Loacker, Armin. 2019. Unerwünschtes Kino. Deutschsprachige Emigrantenfilme 1934-1937. Vienna: Filmarchiv Austria.

O’Sullivan, Carol. 2019. ‘“A Splendid Innovation, These English Titles!” The Invention of Subtitling in the USA and the UK’. In The Translation of Films 1900-1950, 267–90. British Academy, Oxford University Press.

Ravotto, Joseph. ‘Foreign Investments Aid Italian Studios’. Motion Picture Herald, 5 February 1938, 25.

Ridenti, Lucio. ‘A Tirrenia Con Due Sergenti, Tredici Uomini e Un Cannone’. Cinema Illustrazione, 26 August 1936, 5–8.

Wahl, Chris. 2016. Multiple Language Versions Made in Babelsberg: Ufa’s International Strategy, 1929-1939. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.


This year the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference went virtual, and the STUDIOTEC team delivered two panels. The conference provided a great opportunity to showcase some of our ongoing research to new audiences. 

Putting Studios into the Frame: Architectural, Environmental and Geospatial approaches

The first of our panels foregrounded factors which influenced how studios in Britain and Germany developed over time with reference to crucial determinants such as the weather; geography and location; the human cost of changing technological practices, and the impact of architectural conventions on studio planning. The panel demonstrated that by understanding studios as dynamic spaces defined by multi-stratified layers of industrial and creative activity, as well as by architectural, environmental and geographic experience, they can more fully be put into the frame of film history and interdisciplinary analysis.

Richard Farmer spoke on the relationship between meteorology and filmmaking in Britain, exploring the ways in which global developments in studio design have been adapted to take localised climatic factors into account. Using London’s famed winter fogs as a case study, the paper demonstrated that specific kinds of weather necessitated specific responses: from the initial closure of British studios in the winter months in response to fog entering into and disrupting the places of cinematic production, via filmmakers’ seasonal migration to places such as the French Riviera, to eventual solutions that allowed for year-round production in the United Kingdom. Such solutions included the development of air-filtration plant that allowed production to continue through the winter at urban studios such as Islington and Shepherd’s Bush, and the construction of new studios outside the London ‘fog zone’ at more rural places like Elstree, Beaconsfield and Denham. These developments placed the British production sector on a much surer footing. The paper also showed how filmmakers in Britain, having finally found ways to banish fog from their workplaces, then sought ingenious ways to artificially simulate it in order to create ‘authentic’ visions of London.  

Eleanor Halsall explored working conditions in the first sound film studio built in Germany in 1929. This cruciform construction, known as the Tonkreuz, embodied the latest technologies in terms of soundproofing and ventilation and was designed to minimise disruption and control human flow throughout the building. When interviewed for film magazines about what it was like to work in these conditions, film stars (and it was mostly their voices that were heard!) complained about extreme heat and long working hours. Reading these testimonies led me to think about working conditions at this historical turn towards sound and the experiences of those working behind the scenes: the camera operators enclosed in soundproof boxes; and the engineers perched high up on the lighting bridge where the heat was even greater. The extras who were now required to stand in absolute silence for extended periods of time, an unwelcome departure from the silent era when they had more freedom to chat and move whilst waiting for their turn. The higher cost of shooting sound films led to more intense working patterns in order to complete these expensive productions quickly and this led her to think about workers in Metropolis.

Sarah Street’s paper ‘The Film Studio as Narrative Architecture’ focused on Denham, Britain’s most extensive complex of stages when opened in 1936, in an analysis of architectural plans, maps, photographs and A Day at Denham (1939), a promotional film which documented how the studios functioned. Looking closely at such visual documentation, the paper promoted new ways of thinking about studios as ‘narrative architecture’ that are inspired by architectural theories of the built environment and notions of buildings as ‘lived’ spaces with contested meanings. How Denham’s ‘narrative’ evolved was demonstrated with reference to the ways in which the spaces were used, adapted, moved through and experienced. Although Denham’s Art Deco façade projected an image of modernist, streamlined industrial efficiency, a post-war report observed that Denham’s spaces did not necessarily reflect this aspiration. This reflected a tension between the desire for efficiency and recognition that workers’ conditions needed to be improved. While oral and written accounts shed light on these issues, the visual evidence of floorplans, measurements and photographs enables the record to be more vivid and precise. At the same time this evidence opens up a whole range of conceptual approaches from architectural theory and practice to the analysis of studios.

Denham’s long corridor with colour-coded directions on the wall

Fraser Sturt’s paper focused on the work that we have been doing to build a spatial and temporal dataset for studios in England, Italy, Germany and France between 1930 and 1960. These data allow us to consider changing patterns of activity across Europe and the factors that might have driven them; from changing technologies, economies, migrations and the impact of war. The scale of the challenge this represents in terms of data collection, and the complex inter relations between datasets was highlighted, with little in the way of digital geospatial data currently available for this subject. Whilst it may be challenging, the gains to be had from such work were also drawn out – in that they allow us to explore the data in a different way and pick out different patterns. The map below indicates a partial representation of differing film outputs between 1930 and 1960 from data processed to data. As we build this dataset we’ll be able to explore cross cutting themes and tease out causation and correlation in a new way.  

Trans-European Patterns in European Film Production during World War II

The second panel discussed the inter- and transnational exchanges between film industries in Europe during wartime conflict, particularly the operational activity and organisation of film studios in France, Germany, and Italy.

Tim Bergfelder’s paper was focused on the transnational strategies and developments for German studios between 1939 and 1945.  Exterritorialising film production, the Nazis moved studio activity from Germany to occupied territories such as Austria, France, the Netherlands, and Czechoslovakia, or produced in studios of Allied countries such as Italy. While in Dutch and Czechoslovak studios the emphasis was in the main on producing ‘camouflaged’ German films, French studios under German control catered primarily for local tastes and audiences. Meanwhile in Germany itself, studios experienced shortages of material and labour, as German personnel were increasingly drafted into the immediate war effort as soldiers, while studio facilities, production company offices, and printing labs were damaged or destroyed by bombs. The loss of a constant workforce was in part compensated by the use of foreign workers, some voluntary and actively recruited, while others coerced. The conditions for forced labour, including prisoners of war and camp inmates, varied from studio to studio and according to individuals’ usefulness to the studio operation. In this respect, German cinema’s war-time transnationalism took on colonialist and imperialist features.

Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1990-1002-500/CC-BY-SA 3.0

Sue Harris’s paper focused on the Parisian studios during the war and Occupation period (1939-44), asking how the studios operated under unprecedented new constraints that were both political and practical. Noting that the much-researched films produced by the UFA affiliate La Continental amounted to only 14% of the national output of the period, Sue redirected our attention to the broader landscape of French film production, which saw a wartime production of 220 French features and many other kinds of films (newsreels, documentaries, information films, advertising films). Putting the work of the studio employee back at the centre of the history of French cinema during the Nazi Occupation, Sue explored how the working population was transformed through a variety of measures: a drastically depleted male workforce that entailed the removal of much of the studios’ core skills base (to imprisonment or enforced labour); strict requirements for work permits; raw material and electricity shortages; the increased employment of women in historically male roles (such as carpenters, electricians and stagehands); and the impact of bombing and air raids. Drawing on contemporary records, Sue showed that the Parisian studios remained active, resourceful and productive throughout this period, and thrived in the most reduced of circumstances. 

Morgan Lefeuvre highlighted the unknown film cooperation between France and Italy during the war. Although the two countries had begun close cooperation in the field of film production in the early 1930s, she analyzed how the War and then the establishment of the Vichy regime, far from interrupting this cooperation, made it possible to strengthen the Franco-Italian dialogue in a new political context. Relying on numerous examples and mostly unpublished Italian and French archives, she showed how cooperation developed between September 1939 and the end of 1943. From the massive presence of French professionals in Italian studios during the ‘Phoney War’, to the control of the Nice studios by Cinecittà, via the creation of a Franco-Italian production company or the circulation of actors and technicians between the Rome and Paris studios, this brief but intense Franco-Italian cinematographic cooperation contributed to forging or reinforcing links between film professionals in the two countries. And it is on this rich ground that post-war Franco-Italian co-productions have flourished since 1946.

Reception organised in Paris in September 1942, in honor of the two Italian stars Assia Noris and Bianca Della Corte, in the presence of French and Italian actresses, as well as the Consul General of Italy (Mr Orlandini) and the official representative in Paris of the Italian film industry (Mr Sampieri)

Carla Mereu Keating‘s presentation ‘Studios at War: Military Transmutations of Spaces of film production’ explored how World War II altered the geography of Italian film production and impacted film studios’ physical and material infrastructure. At the beginning of the conflict, film studios across the country expanded their capacity (number of soundstage) to accommodate the making of a larger number of films. This infrastructural growth was a direct response to the increasing demand for domestic films caused by the facist regime’s monopoly laws of 1938. This ambitions programme was not sustainable, especially from 1943 onwards, when the war was fought at home, rather than being waged abroad: loss of human capital, scarcity of primary material resources, aerial raids and electricity and water shortages did not allow the film industry to continue to operate as planned. During the later stages of the war, the Art Exhibition venue in Venice became the regime’s main film production site; Roman studios were looted by military raids, heavily damaged by Allied bombings (e.g. De Paolis studios) or served as POW and displaced-persons camps (e.g. Cinecittà). Under Nazi and Allied military occupation, some Italian studios were requisitioned and put to a use quite different from their original one: Pisorno studios in Tuscany and Farnesina’s in Rome, for example, were chosen because of their size and location to fulfil a variety of tasks in support of the war.

Yearly film report by minister of Popular Culture Alessandro Pavolini, ‘La consegna: consolidare e perfezionare le posizioni raggiunte’, Film, 13 June 1942, no. 24, p. 4

Both panels generated very interesting questions, comments and reflections. For panel one, a question about the colour-coded directions seen in Denham’s corridor suggested an awareness of contemporary thinking around using colour to aid industrial efficiency. Workers’ health issues also came up as a topic for discussion, particularly how synthetic fog created quite dangerous work environments. The reasons for particular locations – British studios near London, and French studios near Paris – highlighted the close proximity of actors who also worked in theatres, as well as the key resources and expertise necessary for film production. Finally, this panel was asked about the use of GPS-generated data gathering. The richness of data for Ufa, for example, is enabling new insights into issues such as migration, labour mobility and employment patterns that can then be compared across the four countries. GPS helps us to see how spaces changed over time and the growth of studios in relation to city planning and development. Questions for the second panel prompted reflection on how limitations and scarcities had an impact on films such as Roma città aperta (1945). The material presented on Continental Films during the Nazi occupation of France prompted discussion of its ‘independence’, as well as Franco-German collaboration in the 1930s. The position of Jewish involvement in the French industry was also discussed, the risks involved and the very few examples of people who were able to continue to work at the studios. The precarity of the position of black workers was also referenced, as well as the position of women in the studios. Responses to a question about the extent of co-operation with Japan showed that some took place in Germany in the 1930s but there was little of note in Italy except for a visit by Japanese dignitaries to Cinecittà. 

The STUDIOTEC team found the experience of delivering two panels at SCMS stimulating and a great way to take stock of our research so far. It was great seeing other panels too, several of which touched on our interests. We look forward to the next occasions when we can present as well as interacting with other scholars interested in studio studies.

Cricket in British Studios

By Richard Farmer

I have recently been doing some research into the sports and social clubs established at British film studios, seeking to understand how the various sporting events, leisure activities and outings they organised functioned as elements of workplace culture. I have also been exploring sporting competitions organised between different studios, and between studios and firms operating in different parts of the British film industry. 

During this research, I came across references to on-set cricket matches played at Shepperton during the production of Private’s Progress in the summer of 1955. These matches took place during the working day, so were different from most of the sporting events that I’ve been looking at which were scheduled for weekends or during workers’ leisure time. If anything, the Private’s Progress cricket matches are aligned with the kinds of activities discussed by Morgan in a previous STUDIOTEC blog, in that they provided a means of killing time during the tedious longueurs of film production. Using these games as a starting point, I decided to look into cricket in British film studios.

Boulting Brothers charity cricket team

Private’s Progress was directed by John Boulting, and produced by his twin brother Roy, both of whom, in the latter’s words, ‘feel passionately about cricket’ (Furlong 1959: 634), and were known to use slightly tortured cricket metaphors to hit out at criticism of British films (see, for example, Boulting 1959: 6). Although the sport features in several of their films, so sincere was the brothers’ love for cricket that when asked in 1959 if they had ever thought about producing a cinematic satire on the game, as they did about the army in Private’s Progress, academia in Lucky Jim (1957) and industrial relations in I’m All Right Jack (1959), Roy replied: ‘Good heavens, no.  One can’t be funny about cricket.  It’s a sacred subject’ (Furlong 1959: 634).    

There were times, however, when cricket injected a degree of humour into the making of Private’s Progress. When Alan Hackney, from whose novel the film was adapted, visited Shepperton, he found the Boultings seemingly more interested in the fourth Test then being played against South Africa in Leeds than they were in the production of their film. As England tried, and ultimately failed, to hold on for a draw on the final day, the brothers received regular updates about the state of play and regularly gave voice to their nervous preoccupation: John – ‘I can’t stand it’; Roy – ‘I can’t bear it’ (Hackney 1956: 597).   

Boris Karloff in cricket whites

The Boultings were not the only British film industry figures with an interest in cricket. C. Aubrey ‘Round the Corner’ Smith, formerly of Sussex and England, made an acting career in America, and was a founder member of the Hollywood Cricket Club, for whom David Niven, Clive Brook and Boris Karloff all turned out, the latter making the club’s first century. In 1929, Terence Rattigan played for Harrow in the annual match against Eton; 22 years later, as part of the Festival of Britain celebrations, he wrote The Final Test for the BBC, ‘an inevitable outgrowth of [his] early Harrovian division of time between theatre and cricket’ (Rusinko 1983: 3). This television play was remade for cinema at Pinewood in 1952, where parts of the Oval were built in replica after permission to film at the ground was refused. These sets were so detailed that the England cricketers who appeared in the film, including Len Hutton, Denis Compton, Alec Bedser and Jim Laker, were said to have felt very much at home:  

These people [said Hutton] had got the atmosphere so complete that I felt I was taking part in a real Test match when I walked out from the pavilion to open the innings with Cyril Washbrook.  I forgot everything else, except that I was going to face the bowling and to make the runs (Birmingham Gazette, 21 November 1952: 2).

The Final Test – Cast and Crew

Trevor Howard was so famously dedicated to the game that he made it clear to prospective employers that there were certain days when he would be unavailable for filming: ‘“Why?” they’d ask. “Test match, amigo,”’ he’d reply (Munn 1990: 50). Indeed, Howard’s contract with the Rank Organisation was said to contain a clause stating that he would not have to work on specific days, so that he could attend international cricket matches (Birmingham Gazette, 18 August 1950: 4). Even when Howard was in the studio during England tests, cricket remained his primary concern, as Edgar Craven found on a visit to Pinewood on 27 June 1950. Howard was supposed to be concentrating on his leading role in The Clouded Yellow (1950), but his heart was evidently at Lord’s, where the West Indies’ batsmen were piling on the runs in the second Test. At various points throughout the day, Howard was found ‘wandering sadly’ around the studio, obsessively muttering the score, his face more despairing, Craven noted, even than those anxiously contemplating the uncertain future of the British film industry (Craven 1950: 3).

Ian Carmichael was another enthusiastic cricketer, which might in part explain why the Boultings cast him in half a dozen of their films. He noted that it was always easy to tell when he was working on a Boulting brothers’ set:   

On test match days a blackboard was erected beside the set and it was the prop boys’ responsibility, with the aid of their transistor [radio], to keep the score permanently up to date (Carmichael 1980, p. 315).

Carmichael, who starred in Private’s Progress, was given regular opportunities to play whilst working with the Boultings. Writing for Punch, Hackney noted that there were daily cricket matches at Shepperton during the filming of Private’s Progress and claimed that these often took place during regular brief strikes by members of the studio’s technical crew. Hackney, in a line that wouldn’t sound out of place in one of the Boultings’ comedies, records John as saying that ‘It’ll put days on the shooting, but it enables us to play cricket in the afternoons’ (Hackney 1956: 597).  

Yet whereas delays to the production of Private’s Progress allowed cricket to be played, cricket also disrupted the film’s production. Richard Attenborough, who along with co-star Victor Maddern was said by a delighted Roy Boulting to be ‘very keen’ on cricket (Hackney 1956: 597), was knocked unconscious whilst fielding during a stage-versus-politicians charity match at East Grinstead in September 1955:  

He was near the boundary and ran forward to take a lofted ball hit by Lieut.-Colonel W. H. Bromley Davenport, Conservative MP for Knutsford. The ball hit him just above the left eye.  He collapsed with blood pouring from the injury (Birmingham Post, 12 September 1955: 1). 

Still from Pathe newsreel: Attenborough on stretcher

The match was filmed by the newsreel companies and footage from the event, including a prone Attenborough being carried from the field on a stretcher and Minister of Labour Walter Monckton being bowled by a Rex Harrison grubber, can be viewed here (Pathe) and here (Movietone). Attenborough’s wound required twelve stiches, and he was unable to immediately return to work.  This, a studio spokesperson informed the press, necessitated a change in the shooting schedule: 

Dickie was to have filmed several scenes [for Private’s Progress] next week, but we shall have to reshuffle the programme to do certain other scenes in which he does not appear until he is better.  We are told it will be at least a week (Yorkshire Post, 12 September 1955: 1)

Charity matches were not uncommon, even if injuries of the kind suffered by Attenborough were, and afforded actors and other film practitioners an opportunity to show off their skills for a good cause and/or to generate some useful publicity. In 1950, Howard took a side from Pinewood to play against Cranleigh Junior School in Surrey, in response to a challenge from one of the teachers, who wanted to know how well a team of ‘strange film people [could] do on the cricket field without rehearsals.’ Well enough, it turned out.  Howard’s team included producer Betty Box, who had just finished working with him on The Clouded Yellow, and actors Helen Cherry (who was married to Howard), Diana Dors, Jean Simmons, Glynis Johns, Dane Clark and Robert Beatty. These last two, being American and Canadian, respectively, had not played cricket before. Assisted by Simmons’ fourteen with the bat, the schoolboys were bested by three wickets, and some valuable column inches acquired (Rugby Advertiser, 8 August 1950: 3). In July 1953, Terence Rattigan captained a Final Text XI – including both actors and professional cricketers – in a match which raised in the region of £3,000 for the Red Cross, eventually losing by three runs (Minney 1976: 147-7).

Trevor Howard in cricket whites

The weather for that game was good. The same could not be said of match around which The Final Test revolves, which was meant to have been played on one of Pinewood’s stages, but which was moved onto the studio’s lawn when it was found that competitive cricket could not be convincingly recreated indoors (Middlesex Advertiser and County Gazette, 21 November 1952: 1). Shooting in late November proved challenging.  Poor light is the enemy of cricketer and cinematographer alike, and the low, pale winter sun had to be augmented with artificial light from the studio’s lamps in order to give the match an authentic summer glow. Further, the cast’s faces ‘had to be painted over with sun-tan’ before shooting could commence (Minney 1953: 52).  

I found no evidence that the Boultings used their studio lights to continue their on-lot matches when the light got bad; rather, when filming outdoors, ‘the moment the shooting was held up for lack of sun the entire unit would move over to play cricket’ (Carmichael 1980, p. 315). In his memoirs, Ian Carmichael remembered that such play was made possible by the brothers’ cricket-conscious forethought: 

the … prop boys, in addition to the props required for the day’s shooting, always had to carry in their van a complete set of cricket gear. This, on arrival at our destination, would be set up on some adjacent patch of grass (Carmichael 1980, p. 315).

Having appropriate kit to hand was no doubt useful when filming The Guinea Pig on location at Sherborne School in 1948, where players from the school challenged the crew to a game. Despite the best efforts of Bernard Miles, who ran out three of his teammates, the visitors reached their target with a few minutes to spare, with important contributions coming from photographer Reg Davis, sound recordist Jim Whiting and assistant director J. Hancock (Hassall 2018).  Evidently, success on the cricket pitch was as reliant on teamwork as filmmaking. 


Anon., ‘Film star hurt in cricket mishap’, Birmingham Post, 12 September 1955: 1

Birmingham Gazette, 18 August 1950: 4.

Birmingham Gazette, 21 November 1952: 2.

Birmingham Post, 12 September 1955: 1.

Roy Boulting, ‘Franklyn, you’re so wrong’, Picturegoer, 23 May 1959: 6.

Ian Carmichael, Would the real Ian Carmichael – : an autobiography (London: Futura, 1980).

Edgar Craven, ‘Pinewood weeps over willow’. Yorkshire Evening Post, 1 July 1950: 3

Monica Furlong, ‘The Tatler interviews Roy Boulting’, Tatler, 17 June 1959: 634

Alan Hackney ‘Book into film’, Punch, 16 May 1956: 597-99

Rachel Hassall, ‘The Guinea Pig’, website of the Old Shirburnian Society: (2018).

R. J. Minney, ‘The Final Test’, Cine-Technician, March-April 1953: 30-1, 52.

R. J. Minney, The Films of Anthony Asquith (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1976).

Michael Munn, Trevor Howard: the man and his films (Chelsea, MI: Scarborough House, 1990).

Middlesex Advertiser and County Gazette, 21 November 1952: 1.

Rugby Advertiser, 8 August 1950: 3.

Susan Rusinko, Terence Rattigan (Boston: Twayne, 1983).

Yorkshire Post, 12 September 1955: 1.

Black Narcissus and Pinewood

This post by Sarah Street starts a new strand, ‘Film in Focus’, in which we examine a number of film productions from the perspective of studio studies. When planning Black Narcissus (Powell and Pressburger, 1947), Michael Powell was clear that he wanted to create the palace located high in the Himalayas entirely in a film studio: ‘The atmosphere on this film is everything, and we must create and control it from the start. Wind, the altitude, the beauty of the setting – it must all be under our control’ (Powell 1986: 562-3). Throughout the Second World War Pinewood was requisitioned by the Government for flour storage, the minting of currency and as the base for the Army Film and Photographic Unit. In 1946, when Black Narcissus was filmed there, the studio had only recently been de-requisitioned, and was beginning the process of post-war recovery. The studios officially reopened in April 1946 for films produced by the ‘Independent Group’, including Powell and Pressburger’s company The Archers (Kinematograph Weekly, 11 April 1946: 6). Black Narcissus was a milestone in the application of Technicolor cinematography by Jack Cardiff, and also a technical feat that has influenced many filmmakers.

Images from the 1947 film reveal practical aspects of studio ingenuity, in particular how the set designs of Alfred Junge were realized for the screen. Surviving documentation on the making of Black Narcissus reveals some of the techniques that were necessary to create an unsettling atmosphere which, as the character Mr Dean remarks in the film, is extremely ‘exaggerated’. The inspiration for the palace at the fictional place of Mopu came from Rumer Godden’s novel (1939) in which the location is described very precisely as being high up and ‘full in the wind, it had no shelter. Its roof came down close to the ground and it had no open verandahs; every space had a thick glass pane. To step into the house was to step into stillness, into warmth even when it was damp and unlit; but after a moment a coldness crept about your shins. The wind could not be kept out of the house; it came up through the boards of the floor and found passages between the roof and the ceiling cloths; at Mopu Palace you lived with the sound of the wind and a coldness always about your ears and ankles’ (p. 21). In the film, the wind is certainly made a feature of, how it invades the palace and seems to be an unrelentless presence that contributes to the environment that so unsettles the nuns as they try to establish a school and dispensary in the palace that was a former harem. Junge’s designs created the initial visualizations of the palace set and bell tower, seen here in sketch form and then as shot at Pinewood. The total budget for sets was £78,176, whereas for actors it was £50,465, indicating the high priority given to that area of expertise (Street 2005: 18).

Other iconic shots, such as the high angle shot of the dining table seen early on in the film as Sister Clodagh’s mission is being outlined to her by Mother Dorothea, are also possible to trace from Junge’s original sketch to filming and to the final appearance of the shot on screen. Many other sketches were produced by artist Ivor Beddoes. 

The dining table scene in the film

The shots in the film that feature the terrifying precipice were illusions created by the matte artist Percy C. Day. Many of the locations were scenes painted on glass. Jack Cardiff explained how they would ‘matte out the NG [no good] parts of the frame with black card very exactly and then rephotograph the painted glass with mountains and clouds as a second exposure of the film’ (Bowyer 2003: 73). These techniques made it possible to work with the challenging demands of lighting for Technicolor since glass shots and matte painting facilitated the manufacture of exteriors in the studio where light conditions could be more highly controlled than on location. Day wrote that such relatively simple forms of special effect were nevertheless very important: ‘For even though nothing of outstanding photographic originality is aimed at, the fundamental purpose of the shot is achieved in that what would have proved a tricky and dangerous shot was rendered one of simplicity’ (Kinematograph Weekly Studio Supplement, 2 Oct 1947: xvii). For Black Narcissus Day used a new method which meant tests did not have to be shot in the first instance, enabling the film to be developed and printed straight away. He explained: ‘When the required takes have been selected, a decision is made where the matte shall be placed, always bearing in mind that it must not encroach on any part of the image where there is action, and also considering whether there is any addition in the way of movement, such as clouds, which play an important part in outdoor scenes. The matte line should follow dark shapes, such as shadows. Having decided on these points, the image is painted on to glass to match the image of the film projected upon it, following the line where the two have to be photographed to complete the whole’ (Kinematograph Weekly, 29 Jan 1948: 27-8). The illustrations below show Junge’s drawing as the basis for Day’s matte technique, and the same scene in the final film. 

The shot as seen in the film

Junge’s drawings included the wall paintings that do much to ensure the continued presence of the palace’s past use as a harem, even when its purpose has been completely changed into a convent. These images of the designs and how they were filmed on set, erected for the camera’s viewpoint and then how they appeared in the final film, also show the cycle of invention that contemporary studio practices enabled.

The high winds necessitated the use of a machine with a large propellor, as seen here in these images of it being set up for a shot. For smaller gusts, a simple hand-held device was used.

Producer J. Arthur Rank and Rumer Godden both visited the set when the film was in production. The set was also visited by twenty-three Indian soldiers who attended the post-war victory celebrations in London. A report noted that Michael Powell and stars Deborah Kerr and David Farrar ‘chatted to the men to get a first-hand account of life in the Himalayas, and were told the set and costume designs were remarkable in their authenticity’ (Illustrated Leicester Chronicle, 27 July 1946: 3). 

Black Narcissus featured birds, as first seen when we are introduced to the character Angu Ayah (May Hallatt). On set there was a ‘bird trainer’, Captain Charles William Robert Knight, a well-known British falconer who appeared with his golden eagle ‘Mr Ramshaw’ in I Know Where I’m Going! (Powell and Pressburger, 1945). His expertise must have corrected a search reported in Kinematograph Weekly for ‘an old and raggy parrot’ to appear in Black Narcissus to which pet store proprietors resolutely replied that old parrots rarely looked ‘raggy’, only birds in season (3 June 1946: 32). 

Even though the recent TV mini-series production of Black Narcissus (DNA Films, directed by Charlotte Bruus Christensen, 2020) was partly shot on location in Nepal, Pinewood was also used to create some of the most iconic sets, such as the bell tower that features so prominently in the story’s climax when Sister Ruth falls to her death after struggling at the tower with Sister Clodagh. This version of Godden’s novel was filmed using digital cinematography. Jack Cardiff’s approach was however influential in its visualization, with many shots striking very similar compositions and affective resonances in a spirit of homage. The bell tower, for example, was constructed at Pinewood, just as it was in 1946, and the sky behind it was based on shots taken on location in Napal but enhanced by effects work by Union VFX, an independent visual effects facility. 

The bell tower set and background in the 2020 version

In this way the heightened sensibilities and emotions that so pervaded Powell and Pressburger’s film have been re-visited. Revealing how the effects were achieved, as well as the stages of their development highlights the collaborative nature of filmmaking practices, the chains of responsibility and creative engagement required to respond to a production’s challenges. It also reveals the continuities between methods and approaches, in spite of the different technologies and personnel involved. Then, as now, Pinewood was central to their expression of artifice, ingenuity and creativity.


Black Narcissus, DVD Criterion Collection 93, 2000.

Justin Bowyer, Conversations with Jack Cardiff, London, Batsford, 2001.

Rumer Godden, Black Narcissus, first published 1939, Pan Books edition, 1994.

Michael Powell, A Life in Movies: An Autobiography, London: Heinemann, 1986.

Sarah Street, Black Narcissus, London: I.B. Tauris, 2005.

Exit, pursued by a bear: Animals in film studios

You last read about Scruffy, this time Richard Farmer, Eleanor Halsall and Carla Mereu-Keating investigate the wider use of animals in British, German and Italian studios.

Britain likes to think of itself as a nation of animal lovers, and the numerous stories in the trade and lay press would appear to give some credence to this cliché.  Indeed, British film fans could read about animals in other countries’ film industries, from how much it cost to rent a cow in Hollywood (£2 a day, since you ask) to the exotic inhabitants of the Ufa menagerie in Berlin (Weir 1936: 5; M. G. H. 1932: 110-11).   

Articles on domestic cinematic fauna tended to dominate, however, and whilst we see numerous stories about studio cats and the stars’ dogs, other discussions of the place of animals in British studios throw light on the spaces and processes of film production in the UK.  For example, we get a sense of the sheer range of employment types that came within the orbit of the studios.  Professional trainers successfully prepared various kinds of animals for their time before the cameras.  The Munt family started supplying horses to British film studios in the silent era and kept more than 150 horses ready for acting duties, with members of the family sleeping in the studio with their charges and also sometimes appearing either atop or alongside them in films such as The Wicked Lady (1945), shot at Islington (Kinematograph Weekly, 1 May 1947:13).  Agents were often responsible for sourcing and getting animals to the studios, as Constance Sparks explained: ‘I know parrots that will whistle any tune or speak certain words; men with dogs that perform amazing tricks, and I have filed information that enables me to get talking ravens, cats of all colours, and even performing fleas!’ (Sparks 1933: 6).  Someone, presumably, was also responsible for cleaning up after the animals. 

Working with animals could be extremely dangerous, and a trainer was mauled by a leopard during the filming of Duel in the Jungle (1954) at Elstree (Walker 1954: 12) whereas cameraman Hone Glendinning had to be ‘housed for safety in a camera booth’ during the filming of Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (1938) at Shepperton because the pythons featured in the film ‘streaked across the studio floor’ and ‘darted at members of the company and technicians’ (Anon 1937b: 44).  Animals could act unpredictably when they found themselves in unfamiliar surroundings, and cows ran amok during the filming of a farmyard scene in the George Formby comedy Keep Fit (1937) at Ealing, smashing a pigsty, breaking furniture and tipping over a camera (Anon 1937b: 9).  The producers of The Thirty-Nine Steps had the opposite problem, as sixty-two long-haired sheep felt so at home on the artificial Scottish Highlands built by the Gaumont-British art department at Shepherd’s Bush that they immediately put their jaws to work, quickly accounting for ‘the tastefully arranged heather, bracken, bushes, ferns, and even “property” grass’ so that ‘by the time that the stars of the production, Madeleine Carroll and Robert Donat arrived they had hardly a set to stand in’ (Anon 1935b: 7).   

The desire to include animals in films demonstrated both the opportunities and drawbacks associated with new studio technologies.  The coming of sound, for instance, allowed engineers to add auditory realism to sequences featuring animals, and the sound of the gulls in Cape Forlorn (1931), for instance, was carried down a telephone wire from Eastbourne to the BIP studio at Elstree, where it was amplified and recorded (Vigilant 1931: 7).  Yet there was such a thing as too much realism: Dobbin, a horse engaged to appear in Me and Marlborough (1935), caused engineers at Shepherd’s Bush ‘some trouble’ as ‘the champing of a horse’s jaws is a most penetrating sound, and sounds terrifying when reproduced by the recording apparatus’ (Anon. 1935a: 3).  At Denham, the desire to make the River Colne an idyllic but suitably quiet background for filming led to the introduction of ducks ‘guaranteed not to spoil recording with their clamour.’  Unfortunately, the ducks ‘all perished miserably – pursued by the swans and held relentlessly underwater until drowned’ (Dixon 1936: 12), a brutal metaphor, perhaps, for the financial problems that would eventually force Alexander Korda to relinquish control of the studio. 

Illustrative of some of the more unusual hazards facing actors and performers in German film studios, Theo Lingen, in the role of an English journalist, was attacked by his ursine partner during the 1935 shooting of Der Kurier des Zaren (The Tsar’s Courier). Lingen himself was quickly rescued, but the tamer who intervened bore the brunt of the bear’s anger, suffering serious injuries. (Filmpartner, Mein Film, 1935: 18). 

The prolific German film star and director, Harry Piel, frequently worked with all manner of fauna including major predators. This was mostly, but not entirely, without incident. Piel’s advice (should you ever feel inclined to enter a cage full of lions) is to grasp a chair in one hand and a metal pole in the other. With luck, this circus trope may be useful in deflecting swipes from large, exceptionally powerful paws. Or perhaps not. 

Harry Piel’s Panik (1928) 

Piel warned further never, ever to turn your back on a lion and to always be bold: the scent of fear signals opportunity to a predator (Tiere als Filmpartner, Mein Film, 1935: 17). On another occasion Piel cautioned that, should you ever find yourself too close for comfort to a polar bear, the only hint of an impending attack might be a gentle sneeze… 

Yet Piel himself could be taken by surprise. In a widely reported incident during shooting at Babelsberg in 1927, he was standing on a staircase when a tiger was released from its cage. In one leap, the animal landed on the stairs, planting its paws on Piel’s shoulders and causing the structure to collapse, graphically illustrated by Le Petit Journal Illustré. Piel plunged more than three metres to the ground and was carried off in an ambulance, severely injured. Nothing was written about the health of the tiger. (“Harry Piel,” Arbeiterwille, 1927:3; Les dangers du cinéma, le petit Journal illustré, 1927: 2.) 

Germany’s Ufa achieved global recognition for its educational films: short and feature-length documentaries striving to bring the natural world to the cinemagoer. Some of these nature documentaries were made on location, but many were shot in the studio at Babelsberg. To supply the studios, as well as to host animal stars for feature films, Ufa kept its own zoo on site under the watchful eye of cameraman and assistant director, Wolfram Junghans. 

Mein Film described the enthusiasm of a large crowd gathered outside Ufa’s centre on Berlin’s Krausenstrasse (“Mungo,” Mein Film, 1932; 10). One of Ufa’s cultural films was playing on the screen as spectators ‘jostled and japed as they cheered on the deadly battle between a cobra and a mongoose.’ Mungo – one of Ufa’s stars – won the day; the anonymous cobra dying in the pursuit of realism. Animals will be animals, however, and on another occasion when Junghans was preparing a pair of tarantulas who were to be filmed eating a grasshopper, the latter, having failed to study the script, bit off the male tarantula’s left hind leg, instantly altering the narrative. (“Schakale,” Illustrierte Wochenpost, 1930). 

Among the Ufa-Zoo’s other exotic inhabitants were a wolf named Wolfi and his close friend Ali the monkey; Barzi and Gabo, a pair of unruly jackals; spiders, scorpions, alligators and, of course, snakes. Wolfi and Ali achieved fame beyond Germany, and much was written about their symbiotic friendship as well as Wolfi’s appetite for helping to round up animal actors when required. 

Wolfi and Ali

Filmed on location or within Cinecittà’s extensive backlot, the animal world had its fair, and unfair, minutes of fame on Italian screens too. 

Italian Neorealism enthusiasts may remember the dog Flike (also spelled Flaik) acting alongside Carlo Battisti, the university professor turned actor who played the title role in Vittorio De Sica’s drama Umberto D. (1952). The ‘profoundly moving’ relationship between the desperate elderly man and his faithful dog ‘fill us with a desire to help make things right for these people’, commented Roger Manvell, director of the British Film Academy (The Film and the Public 1955: 183-84).  

As is well known, Christian Democrat politician Giulio Andreotti, at the time undersecretary of the Italian government at the performing arts office (Ministero dello Spettacolo), had not been equally enthusiastic about the film’s unflattering representation of Italian society (Sanguinetti 2014). And unsurprisingly so, if we consider how the human-animal relation is dramatized throughout the entire film, the little dog symbolising the only anchor in life for the elderly man made vulnerable by the long-term consequences of war and left behind by the promises of the economic miracle.

Images from Umberto D.  

Long before the rise of computer-generated imagery, production of historical films required the shooting of scenes with live animal gatherings. Large cavalry units, for example, were employed in the battle scenes of historical war epics produced during the fascist regime, such as Cavalleria (Alessandrini, 1936), Condottieri (Trenken, 1937) and Scipione l’Africano (Scipio the African, Gallone, 1937). The co-operation of Italian armed forces was often sought-after for the manpower, for example, thousands of infantry and cavalry soldiers were required to shoot Scipio’s final battle of Zama (Bianco e Nero, 1937: 9). All of these grand cavalry scenes were, however, shot on location while the Cinecittà studios were being built. 

Until the early 1960s, when other large studios were constructed outside of Rome (e.g., De Laurentiis’ Dinocittà), Cinecittà was the only film production facility capable of accommodating this type of outdoor setup because of its vast backlot space. Roman chariot racing in Hollywood’s sword and sandal colossal productions such as Quo Vadis(LeRoy, 1951) and Ben Hur (Wyler, 1959) were shot there.  

Ben Hur’s chariot race, 1959

Horses and other wild animals such as lions, tigers, giraffes, camels and elephants required for filming historical, mythological and adventure films were usually outsourced from Italian zoos and travelling circuses. Some archival sources suggest that Angelo Lombardi’s zoo at Salsomaggiore was the main source of supply for wild animals kept in captivity. Yet providing the requirements of large productions often proved a hard task for resource managers who had to look outside of Italy.  

An illustrative case is the imperial propaganda film Scipio, which cost the fascist regime the staggering sum of about 12.6 million lire (Sciannameo, 2004: 36). The iconic elephants of the Carthaginian army had been particularly hard to find because of the large number requested by the script. Press sources indicate 50 elephants had been used (Bianco e Nero 1937: 9), 18 as front line ‘actors’ able to trumpet, lift the trunk upwards, run and march at their trainer’s signal; and around three dozen only ‘able to act as extras’ (Cinema Illustrazione 1937: 7). 

Elephants in SCIPIO

To our present understanding of animal welfare, however, one cannot ignore the exploitative use of elephants in Scipio. To appear in this ambitious spectacle of war, the elephants were transported by train from the circus Amar, based in central France, to the Tuscolana station in Rome, a long journey which made them ‘nervous’ at arrival (Cinema Illustrazione, 1937). With the exception of a poorly elephant, who had given birth to her little one on the train journey from France to Rome, all the other elephants were forced to walk over 80 km to get to their destination, the Pontine marshes, an area recently reclaimed from malaria and chosen for the filming of the final battle of Zama for internal propaganda purposes (Caprotti 2009). Because these elephants were circus animals, they were not used to walking long distances (an 18 hour walk according to today’s road conditions); at some point along the way, their delicate feet were wrapped in interwoven straw to avoid injury (Cinema Illustrazione, 1936). During shooting, the elephants were asked to march in line, straddled in towers and mounted by two actors impersonating the Carthaginians.  

Animals clearly made important contributions – if at times undervalued and exploitative – to the films made in studios and on location. As these examples have illustrated, they were key to the many spectacular, entertaining and empathetic scenarios in which they featured.  


Anon., ‘They supply the horses’, Kinematograph Weekly, 1 May 1947, p. 13.

Anon., ‘Me and Marlborough’, Eastbourne Chronicle, 19 Jan. 1935a: 3. 

Anon., ‘Government whips puzzled’, Belfast Telegraph, 15 Feb. 1935b: 7. 

Anon., ‘Cows run amok at ATP film studios’, Middlesex County Times, 19 June 1937a: 9. 

Anon., ‘Detectives aid King in Sexton Blake subject’, Kinematograph Weekly, 18 Nov. 1937b: 44. 

Anon., ‘Harry Piel verunglückt’, Arbeiterwille, 5 Dec. 1927: 3. 

Anon., ‘Gefährliche Filmpartner‘, Mein Film, 1935, 517: 18. 

Caf., ‘Gli Elefanti Di Scipione’. Cinema Illustrazione, no. 51, Dec. 1936: 7. 

Federico Caprotti, ‘Scipio Africanus: Film, Internal Colonization and Empire’. Cultural Geographies, 2009, no. 16: 381–401. 

Campbell Dixon, ‘Britain’s new film city’, Daily Telegraph, 28 April 1936: 12. 

René Gauthier, ‘Les dangers du cinéma’, Le petit journal illustré, 1927: 602. 

M. G. H., ‘Actions speak louder than words’, Picture Show Annual, 1932: 110-11. 

W.H. (1932), ‘Mungo‘ kämpft vor einem Stehparkett, Mein Film: 1932, 341: 10. 

Roger Manvell, The Film and the Public (1955, Penguin, Middlesex). 

Donatello Serri Meers, ‘Come Ho Trovato Gli Elefanti Di Scipione’. Cinema Illustrazione, no. 32, August 1937: 3. 

Peter Pau, ‘Schakale, Bären und Taranteln als Filmstars’, Illustrierte Wochenpost, 2 May 1930: 5.

Harry Piel, ‘Tiere als Filmpartner‘, Mein Film, 1935, 483: 17. 

Tatti Sanguineti, ‘Giulio Andreotti. Il cinema visto da vicino’ (2014).

Franco Sciannameo, ‘In Black and White: Pizzetti, Mussolini and “Scipio Africanus”’. The Musical Times, vol. 145, no. 1887, Summer 2004: 25–50.

Constance Sparks, ‘Finding stars for the talkies’, Lancashire Daily Post, 30 Nov. 1933: 6. 

‘Ermietung von 2 Pferden‘, Ufa-Vorstandsprotokolle, 23 February 1944, BArch R 109-I/1716.

Vigilant, ‘Flotsam and jetsam’, Hastings and St Leonard’s Observer, 31 Jan. 1931: 7. 

Derek Walker, ‘Was their journey all that necessary?’, Picturegoer, 24 July 1954: 12. 

Alan Weir, ‘The animals of Hollywood’, Leeds Mercury, 4 July 1936: 5.  

Scruffy: Canine Star of British Studios

By Richard Farmer and Sarah Street

We recently came across an intriguing feature in the French journal Pour Vous (thanks to Sue Harris) about a British film star. Published in February 1940, after the start of the Second World War, but prior to the German invasion of France, the article has a pretty conventional ‘day in the life’ structure and is handsomely illustrated.  It concerns Scruffy, ‘dog and star’ (Pour Vous, 21 Feb 1940: 9) and perhaps the most important British cinematic canine since Cecil Hepworth’s Rover.

Why Scruffy was considered worthy of this treatment in France is not clear, although a similar article on a French poodle named Pipo a couple of months later suggests that dogs may have been en vogue at the time (Pour Vous, 22 May 1940: 6). However, the photospread has obvious appeal for us here at STUDIOTEC: we see Scruffy arriving at the main entrance to Denham studios and starting his day’s work, as captured in these images.

Scruffy being given a medical to satisfy the insurers before being allowed to start the day’s shooting, and in the make-up room, where are are told he requires neither lipstick nor false beard.

Scruffy at work, and, finally, looking with supposedly unfeigned interest at the day’s rushes. 

The photos are clearly staged – although perhaps no more so than pictures of human stars in similar circumstances – but they do provide us with glimpses of the spaces and equipment of the studio. Quite what the highly-skilled studio employees in the photos felt about their role as extras in a photoshoot for a dog is not recorded, and neither is their reaction to the fact that at the height of his fame Scruffy was being paid at least 35 guineas per week – which BECTU records show might have been considerably more than his human colleagues were (Observer, 22 November 1936: 11). Although fan magazines joked of their concern that Scruffy would soon ‘get [a] swelled head’ and start ‘demanding a dressing-room on the set and a stand-in’ (Picturegoer, 26 October 1935: 40), his professionalism was apparently highly regarded at Denham, where his ability to hit his mark first time earned him the nickname ‘One-Shot Scruffy’ (Daily Mail, 17 May 1937: 4). 

Scruffy’s life was a real rags-to-riches tale: purchased from Battersea Dogs Home at a cost of 7s. 6d. by London Films cameraman Bernard Browne (Anon., ‘Scruffy – film star’, Bystander, 23 December 1936, p. 486), but like all the best stars, this might have been an origin story written for the press: The Era claimed that the Battersea Story was just studio publicity, and that in fact Scruffy came from a litter on an Oxfordshire farm (The Era Staff, ‘Talking shop’, The Era, 2 December 1936, p. 2). His ‘autobiography’ (see later) however records him living in north London, getting lost, put in a Dogs’ Home and then given a home by Browne. The rest is, as they say, canine movie history.

Described as ‘the Charlie Chaplin of dog stardom’ (Birmingham Daily Gazette, 29 September 1937: 8), Scruffy made his screen debut in Wharves and Strays, a 1935 documentary shot primarily on location at the Thameside docks by London Films cameraman, and Scruffy’s owner, Bernard Browne.  Having made his feature film bow in Fox’s Blue Smoke, shot at Wembley in 1935, Scruffy went to work at Denham, appearing in Wings of the Morning (1937); at the film’s gala premiere, he was seated next to Sir Kingsley Wood, then Minister of Health and later Chancellor of the Exchequer, a politician who seemed only too happy to be photographed with the most hirsute of the stars of Britain’s first Technicolor feature (Sketch, 2 June 1937: 460). In the film Scruffy belongs to lead character Kerry (Henry Fonda), with whom he appears in several scenes, including one while Kerry is having a bath. The colour of Scruffy’s fur was clearly an attribute that supported Natalie Kalmus’s design for the film as highlighting natural browns and verdant hues for the Irish location.

Scruffy, star of Wings of the Morning.

Scruffy and Henry Fonda in the bathroom in Wings of the Morning.

Staying at Denham, Scruffy made Storm in a Teacup (1937). In the film, Scruffy plays a pivotal role as Patsy and was at the time of the film’s release arguably as big a draw as co-stars Vivien Leigh and Rex Harrison, both then still relatively early on in their careers. Although some exteriors were shot in Scotland, most of Storm in a Teacup was made at Denham, and the studio played host to approximately 150 dogs – ‘lean dogs, fat dogs, mongrel dogs, pedigree dogs, lap dogs, yap dogs’ (Leicester Chronicle, 11 December 1937: 17) – during the shooting of the film’s climactic sequence, with the hounds raised to ‘a pitch of wild excitement’ by the secretion of pieces of raw liver in actors’ costumes (Yorkshire Post, 28 September 1937: 8). 

Scruffy featured in poster for Storm in a Teacup.

Scruffy featured in special postcard for Storm in a Teacup.

The filming of Wharves and Strays and Storm in a Teacup is described in Scruffy: The Adventures of a Mongrel in Movieland (1937), an ‘autobiography’ by Claude Burbridge that recounts Scruffy’s experiences from a canine point of view. Whilst an obvious attempt to cash-in on what might have proved a brief moment of fame, Scruffy’s ‘autobiography’ went through four printings in its first year, proving, as the New Review put it, ‘that the book is popular and its hero an authentic film star’ (New Review, 1939: 96). It recounts how after being trained at a special kennels by R.M. Montgomery, Scruffy first encountered an unnamed film studio to feature in a chaotic, never completed production about the life of John Bunyan. Ever observant, Scruffy takes in the studio’s vast stage quite vividly:

High up by the roof there was a kind of balcony and on this were a lot of very big and very strong lamps and men were sitting by the lamps with their legs dangling over the edge. There were hundreds of people hurrying about and getting in each other’s way and tripping over the cables that writhed all over the floor like snakes (p. 78).

A flavour of the studio as a space of frenetic activity is also conveyed by Scruffy while waiting for his cue:

The set was in a state of uproar. Carpenters and scene shifters were so busy that the place never looked the same for two minutes consecutively. Cameramen were saving and killing arcs; electricians were spinning cocoons with cables and flex; actors and actresses were dabbing feverishly at their make-up and the assistant director cantered past us with the tears streaming down his cheeks (p. 80).

More positively, we learn of Scruffy’s time at Denham Studios, described as ‘a vast size, containing many buildings. These buildings are also of a vast size and contain many gadgets, which are all the latest pattern and most important in the production of pictures’ (p. 89). Scruffy seems particularly aware of social distinctions, commenting that once through Denham’s main gates the long line of buildings housing offices ‘are manned by a very aristocratic collection of young men and maidens. I am not certain as to their precise duties, but I feel sure that they have nothing to do with the squalid and commercial business of producing pictures. I am inclined to imagine that they are recruited from Roedean and Eton in order to lend tone to the film industry and to impress visiting potentates, magnates and what-nots. The further you advance from the front of the building the lower you move down the social scale’ (p. 90). Here is Scruffy arriving at Denham; it appears he was never subject to social exclusion as a valued member of the Denham Studio Club:

Scruffy is impressed with Denham’s restaurant as a place ‘glittering with stars and other people of importance’ (p. 126), and he even attends Denham’s annual Christmas dance for staff and stars. He was petted by many stars including Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester, Merle Oberon, Robert Donat and, of course, his employer Alexander Korda. Here he poses with Marlene Dietrich and Merle Oberon.

There followed an attempt to find out if Scruffy was capable of carrying a film on his own. Vulcan Pictures’ 62-minute supporting feature Scruffy was shot at Stoll’s Cricklewood studio in autumn 1937, and despite its being burdened by a ‘very slow’ pace and a plot ‘full of improbabilities,’ Monthly Film Bulletin found much to enjoy in the film, not least the eponymous lead’s turn as ‘a most engaging mongrel’ (Monthly Film Bulletin, 1938: 97). The film was still attracting bookings until at least May 1945, but the lack of a sequel suggests that Scruffy’s management team recognised that he was most likely to enjoy success in supporting roles, such as his turn alongside George Formby in It’s In the Air (1938), shot at Ealing as the first of a six-picture deal that Formby agreed with ATP.

Scruffy’s commitment to his craft did not stop at the studio gates, though, and like most film stars of the era he appeared on magazine covers (he sat for a portrait by Mrs Shaw Baker, animal portraitist, that graced the front page of the February 1939 edition of Woman’s Magazine), promotional materials such as post-cards and calendars, and the wireless (featuring in an episode of In Town Tonight and, on New Year’s Day 1939, a special programme entitled Calling All Dogs). Scruffy also made numerous personal appearances – as many as 40,000 people might have petted him (Acton Gazette, 10 February 1939: 5) at the ‘more than one hundred’ PAs he had made by February 1939 (Acton Gazette, 3 February 1939: 1). Most of these were at cinemas, but Scruffy also opened fairs and fetes, acted as a judge at a dog show held at Selfridge’s on Oxford Street as part of his promotional duties for Storm in a Teacup (Kinematograph Weekly, 17 June 1937: 39), and was ‘guest of honour at a literary lunch at Grosvenor House’ (Acton Gazette, 3 February 1939: 1). 

In December 1940, with Bernard Browne looking to join the RAF, Scruffy was sold to Margaret Buckley for a price in the region of 100 guineas (Sketch, 11 December 1940: 340). Scruffy, as did many of his contemporary British stars, set about raising funds for war work: anyone donating 10s. to the Dogs’ Spitfire Fund, a body of which Scruffy became President, received his photograph; anyone donating 20s. received a copy of his autobiography (Daily Herald, 18 December 1940: 6). News of his sale was reported in the national press, demonstrating how well known he had become, but his career seems to have waned at this point – the trail goes cold in digital newspaper archives and his career, and possibly even his life, appears to be discussed in the past tense in an article in July 1945 (Chelsea News and General Advertiser, 27 July 1945: 6). But he clearly added more than a generous bowlful of canine charm to the history of British film studios.


Christopher Adams, ‘Two Dogs have their day’, Birmingham Daily Gazette, 29 September 1937, p. 8.

Anon., ‘We take off our hat to –‘, Sketch, 2 June 1937, p. 460.

Anon., ‘Around London with the Showman’, Kinematograph Weekly, 17 June 1937, p. 39.

Anon., ‘London notes and comment’, Yorkshire Post, 28 September 1937, p. 8.

Anon., ‘Where to be amused’, Leicester Chronicle, 11 December 1937, p. 17.

Anon., ‘Scruffy,’ New Review, 1939 (vol. 9), p. 96.

Anon, ‘La journée de Scruffy, chien et vedette’, Pour Vous, 21 Feb 1940, p. 9.

Anon., ‘We take off our hat to – ‘, Sketch, 11 December 1940, p. 340.

Anon., ‘Scruffy’, Daily Herald, 18 December 1940, p. 6.

Anon, ‘Quest for a dog star’, Chelsea News and General Advertiser, 27 July 1945, p. 6.

Claude Burbidge, Scruffy: The Adventures of a Mongrel in Movieland, London: Hurst & Blackett, 1937.

E. G. Cousins, ‘On the British sets’, Picturegoer, 26 October 1935, p. 40.

C. A. Lejeune, ‘A dog film star’, Observer, 22 November 1936, p. 11.

Tamara Loundine, ‘Les débuts de “Pipo” a l’écran’, Pour Vous, 22 May 1940, p. 6.

Seton Margrave, ‘Happiest British picture for years’, Daily Mail, 17 May 1937, p. 4.

E. P., ‘Scruffy’, Monthly Film Bulletin, 5: 49-60 (1938), p. 97.

J. E. T., ‘Scruffy now lives in Acton’, Acton Gazette, 3 February 1939, p. 1.

‘X’, ‘Round about Acton’, Acton Gazette, 10 February 1939, p. 5.

Waiting in the Studios

By Morgan Lefeuvre

And here I am in Paramount’s European studios. […] hustle and bustle everywhere. A huge bus has just spilled a whole army of employees into the courtyard… typists, translators, draughtsmen, technicians… a swarm of smiling, cheerful young people… Stagehands in overalls hurry towards the studios, carrying things, heavy ‘cameras’ on their shoulders… The make-up artists are in their white coats… the dressers… the extras arrive… the artists… the stars…. the cameramen and directors… […] All are feverish, agitated, busy at their work (Ciné-magazine, Jan 1931: p. 20).

This description of the Saint-Maurice studios, chosen from dozens of more or less similar press reports, gives the impression of frenetic, intense and continuous activity. A daily ballet of workers who, in a permanent whirlwind, work tirelessly to keep the dream factory running. A closer look reveals that work in the studios is made up of alternating moments of activity and hiatus. ‘Waiting’ is an essential part of film workers’ lives and a key element in understanding the daily workings of a film studio. 

Michèle Morgan having a break with dancers and extras on the shooting of La Belle que voilà directed by Jean-Paul Le Chanois (Joinville studios December 1949 – photos by Roger Parry).

In this large collective that is a production team, everyone seems to be waiting for something or someone. The many shooting reports that I consulted in the French archives for the 1930s testify to the various waiting times that punctuate the daily life of a film shoot. Here are a few examples taken from the report for Raymond Rouleau’s film Le Messager, shot during April and May 1937 in the studios of Nice, Joinville and Francoeur (Albatros 289 B25). On 8th April, the whole team waits for the cinematographer Jules Krüger who finally indicates by a call at 6:25 pm that he will not be able to come, held up on another shoot. April 12th: 55 minutes of waiting during the installation of the set. April 14th: 70 minutes of waiting for the installation of travelling tracks, then 15 minutes of waiting for it to be dismantled. On April 22nd, three work stoppages due to camera malfunctions. On 5th and 6th May, there were countless interruptions in filming to wait for the passage of a plane or a train, Gaby Morlay’s dress change, the adjustment of a dolly, or the actors and operators who extended their lunch break. Although these breaks, which are not anticipated in the shooting schedule, are sometimes used to work out the details of the next scene, to answer a journalist visiting the set, or to take promotional or crew photos, most of the time, everyone has to be patient while waiting for work to resume. 

Françoise Rosay as Empress Catherine II, reading Paris-Soir during a break in the filming of Jean Dréville’s Le Joueur d’échecs (Gaumont Studio, May 1938 – Photo by Walter Limot, coll. Cinémathèque française).

While all studio professionals have to deal with breaks imposed by technical difficulties or human failures, there is one professional category for which waiting in the studio is truly an integral part of the work: actors in general and extras in particular. During the 1930s, the corporate press published a large number of articles on the recruitment and working conditions of extras. They all emphasized the interminable wait that was part of the daily life of these aspiring stars. If the most fatalistic among them were content to wait in the cafés of the Grands Boulevards for a casting director to come and offer them a job, the most determined would set off across Paris for a long wait at the doors of the studios in Joinville, Epinay or Billancourt in the hope of finding a commitment for the day. Once the doors open – when they have not been told ‘we are full for today, come back tomorrow’ – a long day of waiting would begin.


That’s right… I’m waiting… the job of extra sometimes involves a quarter of an hour of real work a day. The other hours you wait… you wait… you wait… you wait for the sun to shine… you wait for the star to arrive… you wait until the sequence of images has reached the point where your very small intervention is necessary… So during this waiting time you fill the minutes, either by closing your eyes to dream or by looking for company (L’Intransigeant, 30 July 1931: p. 6).

Thus, begins the story of a day’s work in the Epinay-sur-Seine studios, told by an extra who then evokes the long discussions between colleagues and the interminable card games between takes.  Whether they are simple extras or have been lucky enough to secure a speaking part, the actors try to occupy the long hours of waiting in the studio. Some, like Jean Gabin, take advantage of the breaks to sleep in a corner of the set, in the grass of the courtyard or on the banks of the river at Billancourt or Joinville (Cinémonde, 1st Aug 1935). Others prefer reading, card games or chess, hobbies most often mentioned in the press or testimonies. Iconographic sources also show that embroidery and knitting are among the pastimes prized even by famous actors, if we are to believe this report on the shooting of Yves Mirande’s film Messieurs les ronds de cuir. During a break, the very popular actor Pierre Larquey ‘takes the opportunity to go and sit in a corner under the admiring eye of two dressers and take out his knitting […]. It’s a scarf, he announces. But I’m like Penelope’, he admits, ‘I’m never done with it!’ (Cinémonde, 22 Oct 1936: p. 752).

Extras knitting, reading and sleeping, waiting for acting on the shooting of Croisières sidérales directed by André Zwobada (Francoeur studios, December 1941 – photos by Roger Parry).

While the leading players have their own dressing rooms where they can go and rest during the waiting times, this is obviously not the case for supporting roles, let alone extras. Waiting often take place in uncomfortable conditions, on the fringes of the sets, in the courtyard or possibly at the studio bar if one exists. The poor health conditions in which all film workers were working in the 1930s and 1940s were the subject of many trade union protests and were regularly denounced in the press. Here is what Le Reporter du studio wrote in its editorial of 8 January 1938 entitled ‘Open letter to the studio directors’:

Dear Directors,

Have you ever thought that the artists working in your studios might be tired or suffering? […] There are long days in the studio, hard scenes, empty hours too, during which no one can get away, likely to be called at any minute.

What do they do during these forced breaks? They wander lamentably in the corridors, in the courtyards, in the cold, in the rain, anxious above all not to damage their clothes, their evening gown, their beautiful costume – because it is often their livelihood – and it is worth several daily fees – and never, never a chair, a bench to rest, a shelter to put themselves in!

No studio has ever had the humanity to think that ten… or three hundred extras could be brought together and might also feel like sitting down…

Joinville, Billancourt, Eclair, Tobis, Neuilly, Courbevoie? Nothing, nothing! In Paramount a reserved room called ‘Foyer des artistes’ yes, four or five chairs and a small space… the idea was there… but how insufficient! (Le Reporter du studio, 8 Jan 1938)

Roger Parry’s photo reports in the studios of Saint-Maurice and Francoeur confirm this lack of comfort. We see the extras waiting between two shots sitting on piles of rostrum, carts, scenery elements or sitting directly on a dusty floor.

Extras waiting during the shooting of Madame Sans-Gêne directed by Roger Richebé (Saint-Maurice Studios, June 1941 – photos by Roger Parry).

Extras waiting for acting on the shooting of Croisières sidérales directed by André Zwobada (Francoeur studios, December 1941 – photos by Roger Parry).

However, the archives indicate that efforts were made in some studios to accommodate studio staff in a more suitable manner. As early as the late 1920s, the Cinéromans studios in Joinville had a vast restaurant, numerous and comfortable dressing rooms for actors and extras, and a waiting room. In a letter addressed to L’Union des artistes (the main actors’ union), a certain Fernand Saint-Allier thus congratulates Jean Sapène, director of the Joinville studios, for the efforts made to welcome film workers with dignity. At the Joinville studios, he writes, ‘there is a waiting room with chairs and a doorman to welcome you […] everything is pleasant and spacious. The dressing rooms are pretty and practical, there are washbasins, showers, a make-up room, etc… a bar and a restaurant where you can have decent meals at reasonable prices without having to get back into your street clothes and go out in bad weather, and that’s just between us, at home’ (Union des artistes, 175 J 200). Indeed, if the most substantial studios make the effort to equip themselves with reception areas and in particular a bar-restaurant, it is not only for the comfort of the actors, technicians and studio workers, but also to facilitate the task of the stage managers and make important efficiency gains. In the absence of reception areas within the studios, it was not uncommon for teams to disperse in the lunchtime break, leaving the stage manager to do the rounds of the local bistros to gather up his recalcitrant crew and extras. Now it would be the turn of the technicians to wait, with their lights and camera angles worked out, on the deserted set ready for shooting. 

While some people would go fishing, actor Jules Berry preferred to spend his time at the racetracks near Joinville or Epinay-sur-Seine, adding his winnings to his already impressive salary. As a journalist from Pour Vous wrote, ‘Berry has acquired a surprising skill in the art of calculating the length of scenes he will not be in. When others go out for a breath of fresh air or a cup of tea, he guesses “I have time to watch the second race!” And he leaves. And he comes back on time without missing a beat’ (Pour Vous, 4 Jan 1939: p. 11).

While actors and extras found hundreds of different ways of passing time, for workers and technicians waiting was rarely dead time. The permanent studio teams (carpenters, painters, grips, propmakers, etc.) would use down time to maintain their equipment, tidy up the workshops or improve the tools. As for the contract technicians, down time gave an opportunity to talk to colleagues, exchange on various aspect of the profession, ensuring they were always up to date with work going on in other studios. For them, the studio was the perfect place to socialize and strengthen their professional network essential for any career. In the studio professions, word of mouth has always been the best way to find out what projects are in the pipeline, and how to get taken on. 

For younger and less experienced technicians, breaks were also a time to learn the craft. Indeed, in the absence of film school, most studio professions were then learned ‘on the job’ according to the logic of the workshop. Breaks created valuable space for apprentices to learn from master craftsmen in the industry. During the down times, the director of photography could finally give some technical indications or advice to his assistants, the stage manager could explain the tricks of the trade to the propman and the key grip could explain to the stagehand how to correctly install dolly tracks. The memoirs of technicians often evoke these precious moments of exchange with more experienced colleagues who, through their benevolence, taught them the rudiments of the profession between two shots. This is how Alain Douarinou describes one of his first experiences as second assistant to the cinematographer Nicolas Hayer, his task consisting mainly of developing test shots in the small laboratory adjoining the set:

In reality, these various works, although they required a certain amount of attention and a minimum of skill, left me quite a bit of freedom. As soon as I had nothing more to do in the lab, I would go straight to the set, where our team was working to give a hand to the stagehands or Grisha [the first assistant camera], but above all to watch the filming process, the preparation of the shots, the adjustment of the lights and the actors’ rehearsals. […] If I wasn’t needed for a hand or work in the lab, I was free to go and drag my boots around in the many outbuildings of the studios to see what was going on. (Douarinou, 1989, p. 20).

Whether they are used to learn a craft, to play cards or to knit, waiting times are an integral part of studio life, and were sometimes used as a commercial argument in the 1930s. As in this advertisement for the vitamins Phosférine, which claim to help actors fight exhaustion caused by ‘hours of waiting in uncomfortable studios [that] end up undermining even the strongest constitutions’ (Le Progrès de la Somme, 11 Jan 1932: p. 3). Or again for the portable radio Sonorette, presented as a ‘faithful companion for the long hours of waiting in the studio’ (L’Intransigeant, 24 Oct 1933: p. 12) that stars (including Arlette Marchal and Rosine Deréan) take ‘everywhere with them, in the studio and on their travels!’

Advertising for portable Sonora radio sets, published in L’Excelsior, 11 January 1934.


Advertising published in Le Progrès de la Somme, 11 January 1932, p. 3.

Advertising published in L’Intransigeant, 24 October 1933, p. 12.

Anon., ‘Lettre ouverte à MM. Les directeurs de studios’, Le Reporter du studio, n°52, 8 January 1938.

Anon., ‘Les histoires de Jules Berry’, Pour Vous, n°529, 4 January 1939, p. 11.

Archives Cinémathèque française, fonds Albatros 289 B25

Archives départementales de la Seine Saint-Denis, fonds de l’Union des artistes, 175 J 200 

Odile D. Cambier, ‘Actualités joinvillaises’, Cinémonde, n°354, 1st August 1935.

Odile Cambier, ‘A Saint-Maurice, sous la direction d’Yves Mirande on a commencé Les Ronds-de-cuir’, Cinémonde, n°418, 22 October 1936, p. 752.

Michelle Deboyer, ‘La faune du studio’ L’Intransigeant, 30 July 1931, p. 6.

Guy Dornand, ‘Artistes à la journée’, L’Image, 1st January 1933, p. 25. 

Alain Douarinou, Un homme à la caméra, Paris, éditions France Empire, 1989, p. 20.

Ralph Lowell, ‘En flânant dans Paramount City’, Ciné-magazine, n°1, January 1931, p. 20.

Anne-Gabriel Reuillard, ‘Les chômeurs du théâtre cherchent à s’engager comme figurants de cinéma mais sont éliminés par des amateurs. Un collaborateur d’Excelsior figure… et enquête’, Excelsior, 23 September 1932. 

Gilbert Stiebel, ‘Les Figurants’, Lectures pour tous, September 1933.  

Anne-Marie Thaire, ‘Journal d’un figurante’, La Volonté, 26, 27 February, 1st, 3, 4, 5 and 6 March 1933. 

Studio Architectures: Vistas and Visions

On 22 and 23 September 2020 the STUDIOTEC project held its first workshop Studio Architectures: Vistas and Visions online. Here the team presents a report of the highlights.

Sarah Street introduced the event by welcoming guests Brian Jacobson (California Institute of Technology), Jonathan Mosely (University of the West of England), Dietrich Neumann (Brown University), Angela Piccini (University of Bristol) and Michael Wedel (Konrad Wolf Film, University of Babelsberg) who kindly accepted our invitation to participate and respond to our papers. This early stage of the STUDIOTEC project, which turned one on 1st September (happy first birthday STUDIOTEC!), was the perfect moment to be reaching out to invite perspectives from experts working in related fields. 

The STUDIOTEC project promotes comparative themes, relating to studio environments in Britain, Germany, France and Italy. As Sarah explained: ‘In our project we are concentrating on the years 1930 to 1960. In these decades film studios experienced highs and lows, periods of intense productivity and activity, but they were also at other times prone to contraction and major disruptions. They also developed physically over time. The snapshot that we will be presenting in these sessions I hope will give an idea of how our research is developing as well as exploring productive directions for studio studies’.

The workshop was divided into two sessions. The first concentrated on the studios’ geographies, their locations as important determinants. It aimed to explore methodological challenges and opportunities to analyse and interpret studios’ geospatial histories. It consisted of team presentations on Britain, Germany, France and Italy followed by Fraser Sturt’s talk on GIS technology as a tool for studios’ spatial analysis and interpretation.  

Richard Farmer and Sarah Street’s paper ‘British Studios: Key sites, locations and facilities’ documented how British studios between 1930 and 1960 were almost exclusively concentrated to the North and West of Central London. The Gaumont-British Studios at Shepherd’s Bush were an exceptional example of an inner-city studio which sought to overcome the restrictive size of the site by building up, rather than out, stacking the stages on floors above dressing rooms, offices and workshops. Sarah concluded this first geographical overview by discussing statistics and data which indicate a rapid growth and later decline within the thirty-year period in the number and operational capacity of studios in Britain. In his paper on ‘German Studios: Berlin, Munich and Beyond’, Tim Bergfelder shared extensive details of the diachronic evolution of German film studios, identifying key phases and regional/urban production clusters (the Greater Berlin area and Munich initially, but then also Hamburg, Bendestorf and Göttingen). 

In her presentation, Carla Mereu Keating raised some conceptual issues related to the (geographical) identity of film studios in Italy, arguing against taking an exclusive Rome-centric perspective. Morgan Lefeuvre introduced France’s ‘contrasted’ studio landscape, highlighting the great waves of construction and renovation of French studios and their functioning as a network.

Fraser Sturt gave the last presentation of this first afternoon, ‘Space, Time & Everyday Life’, explored our spatial data. Our archaeology expert reflected on the surprising ephemerality of the historical data generated by film studios and on how few film historians have so far used studios’ geospatial data to investigate qualitative and quantitative aspects related to film production. 

The second afternoon took us beyond the studios’ doors, as it were. Each member of the team gave a paper on particular case studies dealing with architectural aspects and the functional organization of the studios. Offering a range of approaches and analyses, the presentations highlighted how film studios’ material infrastructure and means of production influenced professional practices. They also discussed how social, economic and political factors played a role in the architectural design and working life of the studios. 

Sarah Street’s paper ‘Designing the Ideal Film Studio in Britain’ explored how studio planning was at the heart of post-war reconstruction for the British film industry, making the need for re-thinking the functionality of existing structures and locations particularly acute. Using Helmut Junge’s Plan for Film Studios: A Plea for Reform (1945) as a springboard for analysing existing studio structures in Britain and on-going debates about ‘the ideal studio’, Sarah focused on studios’ architectural designs, external appearance and public images. A cross-section drawing of Gainsborough in 1928 gives glimpses into some of the interiors.

Tim Bergfelder’s paper ‘Babelsberg and its context in 20th Century German Architectural Trends’ followed the line of utopian thought illustrated by Sarah, documenting how Nazi Germany’s dominant control of the film industry translated into the emergence of an ideal studio aesthetic and function. 

Continuing the discussion of transnational, ‘ideal studio’ motivation, Catherine O’Rawe’s paper, ‘Building the Ideal (Fascist) Studio: Cinecittà and the Symbolic Rebirth of the Italian Film Industry’, interrogated the genesis of Italy’s flagship studios as the instantiation of the fascist regime’s commitment to architectural and cinematic modernity. 

Morgan Lefeuvre closed this comparative session by examining the case of the French studios in the 1930s and 1940s. In her presentation, ‘The unfulfilled dream of a French Hollywood or the impossible centralization of the French studios’, she referred to the many unsuccessful attempts to centralise and rationalise French studios (in very different political and economic contexts) before analysing the causes of these repeated failures and consequences for film production. 

The second part of the afternoon was devoted to case studies focussed on the transition to sound and developing comparative and environmental approaches. In her paper, ‘The symphony of work: Architectural space and working practices’, Eleanor Halsall described the early activities and material infrastructure of Ufa’s purpose-built sound studio Tonkreuz, at Babelsberg, the first of its kind in Germany. She explained how architect Otto Kohtz configured the interior space to eliminate the unwanted intrusion of undesired sounds, illustrated with contemporary impressions of the studio Tonkreuz as a working space. 

Carla Mereu Keating shared ongoing research into the spatial history of Cines, Italy’s first silent film production facilities and also the very first to be converted to sound. Inspired by Henri Lefebvre’s triadic conceptualisation of space, Carla reflected on Cines’ ‘archi-textures’ to observe the tensions present within the studio’s material infrastructure and interrelated spatial representations and social practices (city planning, housing expansion, transportation). 

‘What can we learn from researching the activities of the ‘lesser’ studios of film history?’ asked Sue Harris in her evaluation of two of the twenty film studios active in France during the 1930s: the studios Pathé de Joinville, the largest and most prestigious corporate film production facilities in France, and the Studios de Neuilly, one of the smallest independent sites established after the transition to sound. 


Richard Farmer’s original exploration of the impact of localised (anthropogenic) climatic factors in the siting, design and equipping of British film studios, ‘Fog and British studios’, concluded the final session and our first workshop. London’s winter ‘peasouper’ fogs were considered the ‘arch-enemy of good photography,’ and during the first decades of the 20thcentury they regularly disrupted filmmaking in Britain, delaying production schedules and increasing production costs. Richard’s paper explained how British studios evolved in response to problematic meteorological factors.  

Throughout the two sessions thought-provoking questions were asked and observations shared generously. These discussions led us to collectively question the geography and architecture of the studios from several angles. We debated the links between the studios and their territories by asking how these environments influenced the studios in terms of their architectures, functioning, levels of activity or sustainability. The study of studios’ technical and aesthetic characteristics shows how they reflected their eras, reinforcing a material conception of cinema and its place in society. But beyond materiality, studios also functioned as spaces for creation and sociability, leading us to reflect on how these might have influenced the films they produced. Lastly, methodological reflections emerged from these debates, in particular how GIS and other working methods in archaeology can enrich our thinking and help us to understand the histories of the studios in all their diversity and complexity.